A production of a favorite opera can seem even better than ever if it allows you to appreciate the genius of its composer.
And Florida Grand Opera’s current production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) does just that, with some exceptional singing that underlines the composer’s dramatic power and shows why this opera is one of his mid-career masterpieces.
Using a production from Utah Opera, this version of Ballo is firmly in the milieu of the late 18th-century Swedish court, with a versatile though not entirely persuasive set by Eric Fielding, and beautiful costumes and wigs by Howard Tsvi Kaplan and Sue Schaefer. Although it lacks the visual opulence of a big-budget grand opera production, it’s a handsome show with a convincing period look.
This is also a production with remarkably good singing in the principal and supporting roles. As Amelia, the soprano Tamara Wilson, whose career includes an Aïda at the Met, unleashes a voice of great power and exemplary control. It is an authentically big Verdi dramatic soprano voice, which you could hear most clearly in the closing ensemble of Act II, one of the great set pieces in all Verdi, with all the men on stage chattering away and Amelia’s tortured thoughts soaring above them. Wilson’s voice eased into the high B-flats with sovereign ease and weight; this is a singer who knows how to support the notes she’s making.
Even more impressive was Amelia’s moving Act III aria, “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” which Wilson began with a stunned, almost impassive approach, singing very softly, but not breathily, then building with increasing fervor into the emotional peaks of the aria and floating through the closing two-octave melisma to end with a compelling portrait of a woman consumed by remorse and grief. It was riveting, and the audience at the Ziff Ballet Opera House on Saturday night — which was not terribly large but apparently stacked to the brim with opera aficionados — exploded in a long, passionate ovation.
As Gustavo, the Puerto Rican tenor Rafael Davila, who has been seen in the Sarasota, Palm Beach and Florida Grand houses regularly over the past decade, was excellent. His voice has gotten richer and warmer since I heard him last, and he had an abundance of attractive Italianate sound to pour forth, most attractively in the marvelous Act II duet with Amelia (“Non sai tu che se l’anima mia”).
His work in Act III, from the sorrowful “Ma se m’è forza perditi” to the death scene was equally fine. (And he deserves credit for not asking Renato if there was another bullet in his gun for the audience member whose cellphone went off just at the moment of greatest quiet in that scene.) He was a forceful, youthful Gustavo, and believable as a love object and a commander of his country.
The baritone Todd Thomas, who made a very fine Scarpia in FGO’s 2014 production of Puccini’s Tosca, was a splendid Anckarström. His Act III “Eri tu,” after Amelia’s departure, showed off a singer with an intense, bronze-like quality who can fully invest his voice in the text and the character’s motivation. It was in this aria that he really introduces himself to the audience, and Thomas made the moment count, again to sizable audience acclaim.
Saturday’s audience also was deeply fond of mezzo Dana Beth Miller, who sang Ulrica. Miller, who sang Adalgisa in last season’s Norma, has a thrilling lower register that she imbued with real fire, and indeed it was at her entrance, in scene 2 of Act I, that the production took off and found its groove. Director Marco Pelle chose a fairly hammy concept for Ulrica that made her more of a cartoon and less of a woman of mystery, but it was entertaining nevertheless. The selling point for Miller’s Ulrica was the dark, almost haunting quality of her lower notes and the sheer force with which she sang them; it was in every sense a memorable reading.
Soprano Elena Galván, a light-voiced singer with an agile instrument, was charming as Oscar, which was important for the contrasts built into this opera, with its mix of comedy, heartbreak and tragedy. Her Act III “Saper vorreste” offered a pleasing throwback to a more bel canto style of singing, and Galván showed she can pull it off.
The two co-conspirators with Anckarström, Counts Ribbing and Horn, were sung by the bass-baritones Calvin Griffin and Alex Soare. As they have shown earlier this season, these are two very impressive young singers, Griffin especially. Griffin was an outstanding Victor in Before Night Falls in March, and his Ribbing was delivered by a voice of real beauty and strength. Two other members of the Young Artist program, baritone Nicholas J. Ward and tenor Benjamin Werly, were fine as Cristiano the sailor and the judge, respectively.
Katherine Kozak’s chorus was generally good, though it could have used more heft in the Ulrica scene. As the revelers at the ball, they had more presence and power, but overall they sang with precision and good blending.
Pelle’s stage direction was effective in the aggregate, and he kept the action going, but he didn’t use his crowds particularly well. They tended to mill about in the background, always on the verge of doing something, but mostly kind of moving around in a small area and not following through. More fluidity and natural human activity would have helped give the larger scenes more realism.
He also parked Amelia and Ribbing and Horn on the edges of the stage as Gustavo is dying, standing stock still and watching. One wanted to see how the death affected these characters that we’d come to know, and I think there would have been room for that in the final scene without taking away from its central drama.
Conductor Ramon Tebar led an energized orchestra that sounded terrific, with all the sweep and majest that a fine orchestral ensemble can muster. Tebar tends to overdo one or two things in most things he conducts, but here, his extravagances fit better. The gigantic timpani rolls before the drawing of the names from the urn were way over the top, but they worked. All in all, he led a vigorous, exciting reading of this brilliant score.
Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) can be seen tonight, May 5 and May 6 at the Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami and May 11 and 13 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. Tamara Wilson and Rafael Davila are Amelia and Gustavo tonight, May 6 and May 11; the roles are sung by Jonathan Burton and Alexandra LoBianco on May 5 and 13. For tickets and more information, call 800-741-1010 or visit fgo.org.