Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Daniele Callegari
Director: James Robinson
King Gustavus III: Salvatore Licitra
Count Anckarstrom: Lusa Salsi
Amelia: Tamara Wilson
Oscar: Micaela Oeste
There’s nothing like kicking off a new season with a meaty crowd-pleaser featuring a big name in the lead, and that is just what the Washington National Opera did on Sunday with Verdi’s “Un ballo in maschera” and Salvatore Licitra. To pack an even bigger punch, over 10,000 people also showed up at the Nationals baseball park for a perfect fall afternoon of not only music and singing, but informative pre-performance games and open concession stands as well. Back in the Kennedy Center opera house, the melody lover in me was looking forward to the fabulous score and the purist in me was rejoicing at the prospect of seeing the story back in the original Sweden.
Verdi’s problem child had to go through an awfully convoluted birth before becoming one of his most enduring successes. Nothing was simple for artists in mid-19th century Naples where two groups of censors (political and catholic) were nit-picking about every little detail. So a plot involving illicit feelings, royalty, magic, dancing, conspiracy and, to top it all off, murder was really asking for trouble. After the censors demanded that more than one third of the libretto and most of the story be altered, the already popular Italian master quickly took off to nearby Rome and its own more accommodating breed of censors, who merely suggested changing the setting from Sweden to… Boston, MA! After all, anything was possible in the New World, even a... Boston governor (?!). These days both versions are presented, and the WNO wisely picked the "real thing".
Doomed love triangles are of course nothing new in opera, but this one has all the more poignancy to it as the two allegedly guilty parties manage to remain true to their principles, therefore succeeding in keeping their love truly chaste. Unfortunately, external forces will conspire in making things increasingly more difficult for them, and it will inevitably all end up in tragedy during the famed masked ball.
Having a big name in the cast is always a good move, and it is even more indispensable in these challenging economic times where audiences are growing dreadfully leaner. Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra has been establishing a solid reputation of being larger than life (and louder too) and he sure stood out on Sunday. As ill-fated King Gustavus III his voice was clear and powerful, easily rising over the orchestra with unwavering stamina, if not consistent subtleness. His spontaneously endearing demeanor was of course a big plus in the role of the good king who will be murdered for a sin he did not commit, and his discreet charisma wrapped up a genuinely engaging star turn.
Count Anckarstrom, the best friend turned murderer, was sung by another blood-and-guts Italian, baritone Luca Salsi. Soprano Tamara Wilson did not hold back either and brought the right amount innocence and strength to the woman who unwillingly spells big trouble. Her love duet with Licitra in the gallows field (could you think of a less romantic spot?) was one of the highlights of the afternoon. In the smaller but crucial role of Ulrica (I don't know of anybody who calls her Mam’zelle Arvidon), mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina was a quite arresting fortune-teller, and soprano Micaela Oeste was a lovable if jumpy Oscar.
Another telling sign of budget restrictions was the rather bare and/or recycled sets, but the minimalist approach worked out quite well. The costumes were on the understated side too, and one couldn’t help but be surprised at the guests’ drab grey outfits at the final ball. While it visually reinforced the idea of conspiracy, it was nevertheless odd to have a royal festivity look more like a monastic retreat.
But colors galore were vividly filling up the opera house thanks to Verdi's luscious melodies, and that was all that eventually mattered. Another Italian was on the podium in the person of maestro Daniele Callegari, who was making his promising debut with the WNO. He assuredly led the orchestra in a robust celebration of the beautifully lyrical score without missing a beat.
A couple of hours prior to curtain time, horrendous news made me quickly question if I should attend the performance or not. There was nothing I could do at that point and while millions of thoughts kept on viciously exploding in my head, I decided to catch my breath and soldier on in order to keep myself from insanity and because music, like life, must go on. This post is dedicated to my former, dearest opera buddy and closest friend.