Un Ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball) is a Tad Bumpy But Looks Good and Moves Well

A tale of intrigue and thwarted love.
A tale of intrigue and thwarted love. Photo courtesy of Opera in the Heights
If you want a foolproof diet, turn to Giuseppe Verdi. Mr. Opera knows what works best: no fat. No other composer so mastered the art of shedding superfluous pounds. He lived for sleek, and his masterpieces are models of speed and concision. There's nothing added, padded. No filler. It's all protein, good and meaty.

Un Ballo in maschera (1859) followed his great trio of Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Il Trovatore. Verdi was Italy's most famous musician, but even unparalleled international fame couldn't compete with Austrian censors. Naples' famed San Carlo Opera commissioned the hot composer for a new work. Verdi wanted to write King Lear, but the theater's impresario squashed Verdi's only choice for soprano as daughter Cordelia. One didn't say no to Verdi, but his dream project was put on indefinite hold – he never did write it.

Since he was under contract and had to deliver something for the premier's fast-approaching date, his librettist Antonio Somma reworked Scribe's oldie play, Gustav III, and Verdi rushed the renamed Ballo into shape. It tells the true story (sort of) of the 1792 assassination of Swedish monarch Gustav III. This being opera, the motivation for the killing is, of course, a love triangle gone wrong, yet the monarch was attacked at a masked ball at Stockholm's opera house and died from wounds two weeks later. An ill-fated failed love affair at the story's center is pure fiction, since Gustav, by all recent research and contemporaneous diaries, was gay as the Queen of the May. Truth never stands a chance in the world of opera.

In the nascent movement for Italian independence, with its mini-insurgences and revolutions, the foreign powers that controlled the separate states were in no mood to sanction a plot that depicted a regicide, even one set in far-off Sweden. The Naples authorities demanded a baker's dozen of edits and emendations, and their meddling only raised Verdi's ire and intransigence. The premiere's date came and went, until San Carlo canceled the contract and Rome's Teatro Apollo, with its own set of edits, said yes to the new Verdi work.

Boston replaced Stockholm, of all things; there's no king, he's now governor Riccardo; but the rest of the plot remained pretty much as originally written. Almost all modern productions of this opera return the setting to Sweden and its doomed king, if the director wants to be historically accurate, but who says opera directors want accuracy? The story's so elemental – two men, one woman – any setting will work.

Under director John De Los Santos, Opera in the Heights glosses Verdi in contempo business chic. Strikingly designed by Jonathan Dahm Robertson, the unit set looks like the lobby of a lux Ian Schrager hotel. Blood red carpeting and a geometric gray-and-red Mondrian grid dominates. Smart phones are used. Riccardo's secretary Oscar sports a headset. Courtiers wear sharkskin suits. Fortune teller Ulrica, the first act's primal, and prime, character who predicts Riccardo's demise, is a homeless bag lady in soiled mukluks and faux sheepskin coat, engulfed by plastic bags and enthroned on a ratty sofa patched with duct tape. Surprisingly, this update works.

Verdi's fairly well served by maestro Eiki Isomura's tumultuous pacing. In some places, the sync between rushing orchestra and singers gets muddled but quickly reestablishes. As usual, Verdi lets his characters fly. All get a distinguishing aria that sets their emotional arc, and then he masterfully builds each act with a duet, trio, quartet, quintet, but not necessarily in that order. He plays with musical structure and thereafter changed the face of opera.

Verdi peppers this opera with five major actors: Riccardo (tenor Peter Scott Drackley), unrequited lover Amelia (soprano Kelly Griffin), Amelia's husband Renato (baritone Kenneth Stavert), seer Ulrica (contralto Claudia Chapa), and page Oscar (coloratura soprano Kaitlyn Stavinoha). Sailor Silvano (baritone Ricardo José Rivera-Soto) gets one showstopper song during Ulrica's scene, while conspirators Samuel and Tom (basses Jorge-Phillipe Belonni Rosario and Riley Vogel) weasel their way throughout the work, growling their dissatisfaction. Known for his choral highlights, Verdi ushers in the crowd when the drama needs it most. Act III's ballroom scene is especially effective, as the rowdy party swirls around the major characters as the noose tightens.

Tenor Peter Scott Drackley, as Riccardo, pushed too far opening night. All the warmth dissipated from his voice, and he sounded pinched and tinny. He hit all his notes but was far removed from ardent lover, and sounded less. Possessed of a mezzo's velvety sheen, soprano Kelly Griffin, as Amelia, has power but not much variation, stepping up into her high notes instead of solidly placing them. She's in love with Riccardo but is too much the lady to do anything improper. Her plea to see her son one last time was Griffin's best moment, glimmering with resignation and maternal love. Too often, she spent the night singing to the monitors where Isomura was conducting.

But Ballo blossomed when Stavert, Stavinoha, and Chapa appeared.

Ulrica only appears in Act I, but it's a stunner of a cameo. As prophetess, she summons Satan in volcanic incantation and thoroughly rules the stage. Chapa accomplishes this with magnetic presence and booming contralto. She's a dangerous, crazy bag lady, and Chapa's great scene is Grammy-worthy.

As perky Oscar, a “pants role,” Stavinoha gamboled through her treacherous filigree with sparkle, fire, and winsome personality. She could do no wrong.

Stavert is the real thing, a classic Verdi baritone with resonance, flexibility, and vigor. Verdi adored the baritone voice and wrote some of his most luscious melodies for this most masculine timbre. Stavert embraces Verdi with impressive tone and dramatic chops in Renato's famous “Eri tu,” where he excoriates his wife for her apparent betrayal and then succumbs to his bedroom memories of her. Verdi was as much a sensualist as Wagner, just more Latin and not as perfumed. Throughout, a stirring Stavert constantly revealed Renato's conflicted psychology through impassioned singing. The best performance all night. May he return soon to OH.

A tad bumpy, A Masked Ball looked good and moved well, thanks to director De Los Santos. It sounded pretty good, too, thanks to maestro Isomura, with standout solos from flute (Wendy Issac Bergin), harp (Emily Klein), and cello (H.P. Scott Card). But without a riveting tenor and soprano the opera lost its central focus – Verdi wrote for star singers, after all. Here, we're mesmerized by only three: husband, secretary, and witch. Three out of five aren't the worst odds in Verdi.

P.S. Please amp up the wattage on those surtitles. Projected on the mottled gray background, they are indecipherable.

A Masked Ball. 2 p.m. Sunday, February 18; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, February 22; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 24. Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Boulevard. For information, call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights.org. $12.50-$74.50.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover