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Mano a mano

chicago_balloI attend the opera intent on enjoying myself. If the music is not my favorite, there is always something to like, be it a colleague’s individual performance, the discovery of a newcomer, nifty stagecraft or costumes, observing the movement skills of the various singers, or in worst-case scenarios, observing the audience’s boredom, carefully notating the point-of-no-more-patience. My critical eye and ear are well-known, so I try not to be cynical as I silence my smartphone and smile at the sextagenarians who own the subscription seats next to me. 

My enthusiasm is genuine because the new Lyric Opera production (owned by San Francisco) of Un ballo in maschera Monday, November 15 was positioning itself as The Crowd Pleaser of the season—a starry cast, including local favorites and a beloved soprano-cum-stage director; a Verdi Opera that people recognize in a traditional staging; and a show with Two Intermissions.  I personally adore Frank Lopardo, the Riccardo, and have been cheering for his career no matter which wrong turn it takes.

So I am happy at the start of the show and Lopardo does not let me down in the first act.  Renata Scotto immediately lets the audience know that her goal for every important melody is to get the singer downstage, front and center, and when they arrive there, you listen because it is an aria is about to start. I wish all directors signaled us like that. It feels very baroque. This is the way La Scotto probably likes to be directed herself, and  it makes me imagine the greats of the past fitting neatly into her blocking…


Uh-oh, I am thinking about  Bergonzi in this role just as my once-pin-up Frank is about to launch into “La rivedrà.”   But Lopardo can pull this one off easily and with élan. Even though the voice doesn’t brighten in the middle, and the passaggio notes are mucousy, the phrasing is graceful and conveys the appropriate ardor. It is Ardor Lite. The first scene is a triumph for him. The stretta “Ogni cura si doni al diletto” is rhythmic in a way that suggests his coloratura virtuosity of yore. He practically dances in place and I swoon.

Mark Delavan’s Renato sounds like The American Verdi Baritone vintage 2010, by which I mean that he is reliable, knows when to be generous with the phrasing and always sings at a minimum mezzo forte. Delavan vaults his instrument over the passaggio  and always lands on two feet. It is an instrument that teleprompts its technique. The physical gestures are stock, the body language rigid. This is a singer who needs a director who will give him very specific movements. Or yoga. But he is reliable. Isn’t that a nice thing to say about somebody?

Then Kathleen Kim gets her first moment.  What is there to say about this singer?  Oscar is a role tailor-made for her physical stature (less than five feet?) and her voice-type. Hers reminds me of a Laser Pointer Pen with the wrong battery installed. She is a local darling  in Chicago as an alumna of the Ryan Center. What a thrill for this audience to welcome her home after her Met HD broadcast as Olympia? She could do no wrong here and everybody wants to take her home and  hang Christmas stockings with her name embroiderd on them.

Ulrica’s lair is being pushed on stage and there is a noticeable buzz of content in the darkened theater. The curtain rises and we are in the Sorceress scene of Dido and Aeneas with the acolytes  undulating “grotesquely” around immutable Ulrica and her brew.  So much camp and I heart it.   The aria begins and for the first time this entire season, Lyric Opera audiences get their ears cleaned.  It is like we all simultaneously put on hearing aids. Language. Pure vowels.  Ground shaking chest tones and top notes that fill your sinuses.

I am not always in the camp of Stephanie Blythe, but on this night (and the time I heard her sing Fricka at the Met) I am blown away by her voice.  How validating that the singer who keeps Classical and Baroque roles in the repertoire is the one who sounds most like a Verdi heroine!  Stephanie Blythe stole the show and everybody knows it.


The  appeal of Sondra Radvanovsky is obvious. She is tall with a beautiful face and  a body that will fit into many costumes; and has a recognizable tone quality tinged with pathos.  I understand why so many fans have invested their hope in her Verdi heroines. The voice has an even vibrato from top to bottom and there is no problem hearing her in the second-largest opera house in North America. When she needs to switch to the next gear, she proves that she has sound in reserve. But I don’t like that particular sound. Personal taste. Don’t hate me. For me, the voice is under a veil and the diction in lazy at best.

From the exit of Ulrica, my appreciation of this production wanes.  Lopardo reminds us of his great skill as a comedian, a natural clown, in disguise as a sailor. It is his best moment.  The love duet goes well because it is top shelf Verdi and Lopardo still has stamina to match the fresher sounding Radvanovsky. Weaknesses in the staging become distracting.  Riccardo pleads to Amelia on bended knee, arms outstretched in a way that can only mean Grand Opera or “I am about to catch a  huge beach ball!”

In act three, the betrayed Renato keeps pointing at the floor when he threatens Amelia. “You are going to clean these floors, woman!”  The trio with Sam and Thomas delivers all three singers downstage center, their hands homoerotically stacked on one sword. As for Amelia, the big aria sounds unrehearsed.  After the poignant cello solo, Ascher Fisch starts the oom-pahs at an impossibly slow tempo and I am waiting for Radvanovsky to literally die in the middle of this aria. Did she forget the words? Does she know that she came in early there? No matter, a beautifully shaped cadenza with effective mezze di voce gives the Radvanovskyists the evidence they need to anoint her as queen.

The saddest part is the third act. Lopardo alone at his desk, nothing else on the candlelit stage. One of the best opportunities for a tenor in the entire canon.  He  doesn’t make it. After a convincing accompagnato, the cantibile “Ma se m’è forza perderti” reveals that this great Rossinian has been wearing the mask of a Verdi Lyric Tenor.  The voice falls off the fundamental. The rest of the opera is sung  almost sotto voce.  I am heart broken and I want to rush the stage and hand him a Coca-Cola.  The irony of his own words in the program notes!

This role requires pacing. I take a very lyric approach to it. I don’t sing like a dramatic tenor. The last-act aria freaks some tenors out, but I don’t have that feeling—actually, I can’t wait to get there because it lies right where I live. The character is someone who throws caution to the winds at every turn. Because he’s a tenor, he sings wonderful music, but he’s also to blame for the opera’s outcome, which he brings upon himself.

This performance is recommendable. Something about these melodies and even a sufficient cast manages to stir the heart. I still love you Frank, even though I spied on you in Facebook and suspect that you are a staunch Republican. I still listen to your amazing Lindoro and Almaviva.  And I still cherish my Bergonzi-Price-Verrett-Grist-Merrill Ballo. And I look forward to another Blythe Sings Verdi production here in Chicago.  It will probably be as Amneris to Radvanovsky’s Aida. I will relish seeing Blythe tell her “I am the daughter of the pharaohs and I am your rival!”

[Photos: Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago]


  • as per the photo at top, how was blythe’s “Poor, Unfortunate Souls”? ;-)

  • peter says:

    Thank you Fagliaccio for your review! You have a delightful way with words.

    • MontyNostry says:

      It all sounds like a proper old-fashioned night at the opera — and a bit of a treat. I love it when singers plant themselves at the front of the stage to deliver their arias. At Covent Garden there is a sweet spot stage left-ish and I always imagine there is lots of jostling to get it for the big moments, never mind what the director wants.

  • CruzSF says:

    Great review! I feel like I was walked through the performance and experienced it in most of its “glory.”

    Sorry to hear about Lopardo. He shows up here from time to time, with the SF Symphony.

    I do wish Blythe was here more often. I missed her Azucena last season (instead I endured the execrable singing of Malgorzata Walewska).

    • Regina delle fate says:

      Malcantata Walewska should have been doing the prima of Adriana Lecouvreur as the Princess of Beef-Stock at Covent Garden tonight, but after her awful Azucena in London two seasons ago, she was quietly bought out, it seems. That’s why we have Michaela Schuster tonight and Mme Borodina in a couple of weeks’ time.

      • manou says:

        Malcantata canta male…

        Schuster was underwhelming to say the least -- I saw her at the dress and have naturally booked for the Borodina performances.

        Oedipe has made the very pertinent remark that all the Angela G dates are sold out, but there are hundreds of tickets left for the Blancas Gulín performances (with Kaufmann). Pourquoi?

        • Cocky Kurwenal says:

          Shame about Schuster -- I thought her Herodias displayed a lot of relish, but maybe the Principessa doesn’t inspire her in the same way, or maybe it’s just a harder sing.

          I’ve booked for Gheorghiu/Borodina too.

          I’m not really surprised there are still many tickets left for the other dates -- much as I like Kaufmann, and find him very attractive and not in the least pear-shaped, I don’t find him so exciting in and of himself that I’d rush to see a performance with him in the cast no matter what the piece or who his colleagues are. Also, the ticket prices are kind of insane which I suppose people take on the chin when the name Gheorghiu is invoked, but not for the sake of Blancas Gulin. Goodness knows what will happen if Gheorghiu cancels a few and we get more of Blancas Gulin than we bargained for -- after the refunds issued when Domingo last pulled out, they’ve backed themselves into a difficult corner and set a dangerous precedent.

          • manou says:

            Well Schuster pops up again as Venus in Tannhauser -- maybe she is more comfortable singing in her native German.

            Yes, the prices are prohibitive (financial crisis, anyone?), but the fact is that Gheorghiu still pulls in the crowds, no matter what some critics and cognoscenti have to say about her. Poor Dr Papas always gets it in the neck when he trots out this argument, but there must be something in it.

            (Yes, yes, I know, Katherine Jenkins sells out as well…for all I know).

        • MontyNostry says:

          Probably because, like it or not, Ange is still more of an established name with the wider UK public than Kaufmann (a far superior artist to my mind), and the opera is seen as a soprano vehicle. I’m going tonight because I thought it would be fun, though I am peeved that Borodina is not doing the first night.

          Maybe the ROH has been PR-ing Kaufmann in the hope of selling tickets for the Gulin performances. The wider London opera public is hardly likely to know of her: I wouldn’t if I weren’t a bit of an opera nerd and the reviews I have read of her seem somewhat mixed.

          • manou says:

            Monty -- do not forget to email a review to La Cieca.

          • MontyNostry says:

            I have a cheap seat, so I probably won’t be able to see the entire stage, which might affect my reviewing capabilities. I have been wondering how McVicar will work in some naked extras. Perhaps the Principessa di Bouillon will sing ‘Acerba volutta’ while being serviced under her paniers by two hunky footmen — à poil, of course.

          • manou says:

            I hear Corbelli is taking all his clothes off when he tries to propose to Adriana….

          • manou says:

            ….unfortunately in the bit of the stage you cannot see.

  • lorenzo.venezia says:

    The last time I saw “Ballo” at Lyric was i980, with Pavarotti and Scotto, and K. Battle a little overwhelmed by the cavernous house, but clarion. Pav and Renata were very much hating each other; she claimed she was sick. They wouldn’t look at each other, even in the love duet, but past each other, toward their own personal muse. It was glorious. Kick-ass Verdi sung by great stars who knew how to kick it. I’m heading there for this one, but I guess it will not displace the other on that particular shelf of memory. Ah, well. Hope springs eternal.

  • Orlando Furioso says:

    Very entertainingly and informatively written. Thank you, fagliaccio! I admire anyone who, after acknowledging a favorite, will be honest when that favorite fails to deliver and not make excuses. We’ve all been there.

  • kashania says:

    Nice detailed review. Thanks. I don’t know about Blythe’s Amneris. I’ve heard she has trouble with the high-lying dramatic mezzo parts.

    • Cocky Kurwenal says:

      Agreed Kashania -- the thought of Blythe’s Amneris is quite a worry -- the recorded evidence shows her to be quite over-taxed by it. She’s a much lower set voice than that which the role requires, and I think it’s pretty obvious she has already experienced a little bit of a decline, perhaps because of having taken on roles which are a bit on the high side. Her Jezibaba in March last year exposed some wear and tear.

      Ulrica, on the other hand, is just about an ideal fit for her -- she was great in the role at Covent Garden a few years ago.

      • richard says:

        Blythe sang the Act 2 Aida/Amneris duet at the Met’s 125 Anniversary gala. It was billed one of the previews of upcoming seasons (other tantalizing selections billed in this way were the Voigt/Heppner Siegfried duet and Dessay in the Act 1 solo from Traviata).

        Aida in the duet was Guleghina, a singer I dislike a lot. But Stephanie had to work very, very hard in the duet, she was grinding a lot of gears. And to my surprise, she made Ghoul sound both competent and more idiomatic. Ugh.

        Those previews revealed a lot of rocky nights ahead in future Met seasons.

        • Cocky Kurwenal says:

          Yes, I heard that, albeit only on YouTube, and was surprised both at how accomplished and clean Guleghina’s singing was when all one ever reads is how awful she is, and also at how Blythe’s was terribly effortful and rough, when again, one reads she is close to perfection, most of the time.

          I do think Blythe is a wonderful talent, I just don’t think she is suited to the high dramatic mezzo repertoire -- she’s more of a contralto with some sort of extension. She’s much more a Quickly/Ulrica than an Amneris. Azucena, being somewhere in the middle, is less of a concern. Eboli is just out of the question although in a way, it would worry me less than Amneris, because at least she isn’t so exposed for so long in the high tessitura.

        • Camille says:

          Also heard that Aida/Amneris duet, from about the fourth row orchestra, too, and I remember it well. It actually made Guleghina sound good--I was utterly amazed at that! Miss Blythe did not appear to be very comfortable or really ‘feel’ the part, as yet. She suggested none of grand hauteur (a la La Grace or Olga or even good ol’ Dolora) that is necessary to bring this off. I’ll bet that Ulrica would be much more in her comfort zone, like Fricka. I also heard her sing a very commendable performance of the Verdi Requiem in San Francisco. A wonderful kind and considerate colleague to the neoophyte (and wonderful-you go, girl!) Adler Fellow, Heidi Melton, who sang the soprano part as substitute for Racette with about 36 hours notice and truly distinguished herself with great dignity and apolomb.

          Anyway, I hope Blythe can make the transition as her voice solid and she is a good musician. The presence is way too stolid.

          • grimoaldo says:

            She is staying on in Chicago for a few weeks to do Katisha in The Mikado! Oh how I wish I could be there.
            Somebody please sneak some recording thingie in and put it on youtube….
            I saw Blythe and Radvan together in SF Trovatore last year, luved it, luved em both

  • atalaya says:

    Is this in poor taste?
    “RIP Sir Charles Mackerras- it is his birthday today.. Can’t believe he’s gone….”

    “I feel so privileged that his last Decca album was our The Mozart Album together. Love to all Xxxx Danni”

    • peter says:

      It’s tacky but so is practically everything else on Twitter.

    • judycadanna says:

      Very much so, but that’s to be expected in the Facebook world. Some bitch will always step in and make it about herself.

    • armerjacquino says:

      Oh no! She paid tribute to someone she worked with! Then, in a TOTALLY SEPARATE TWEET, she plugged her CD. What a bitch.

  • dcrazmo says:

    That top picture looks like Pilgrims! The Musical or a very bad community theater production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

  • That Guy says:

    Thank you very much for this review! I felt as though I were there in person.

    Just a note about the Riccardo role: It is said to be the longest Verdi tenor role, about 60 minutes of singing (think 12 arias’ worth), and virtually all of it difficult, high-lying writing. To give you an idea, Hoffmann is 75 minutes, but much of it lies in the middle voice (although Hoffmann almost never gets to leave the stage, whereas Riccardo has long breaks in Acts 2 and 3). As Lopardo mentioned, the last act of Ballo goes higher and higher and…

  • phoenix says:

    pagliaccio, this is wonderful. It’s like you’re right here telling me about what happened, much more immediate & personal than the usual astute text-online-blog-masterpieces… it’s more like an informal chat or interview with you rather than a formal write-up.
    -- From what i heard on the Chicago Lyric broadcast the other night, you & I have a similar pair of ears. I particularly commend you for telling it as you heard it. Yes, I don’t like a “covered” tone nor “veiled diction”, so that means there were many famous singers in my long life I wasn’t so enthused about. With Rad’s Ballo the other night, I found it annoying in Act 2 and in the ensembles in the finale of Act 3… i wanted a clearer, more cutting brighter sound from her, which I obviously never will get. But Rad’s droopy overtones were perfect for “Morro, ma prima” in Act 3.
    -- That picture of S. Blythe is priceless. So lovely!
    -- That picture of Rad indeed shows her “tinged with pathos”; her acting appears so real in that foto i wonder if she was actually suffering from acid reflux & Lopardo was gracefully handing her some Tums.

  • on a COMPLETELY different note. how has THIS not made it’s way onto parterre yet?

    • Ben Saddice says:

      I like how his tits bounce through the entire introduction to the aria proper, and he only notices once he clutches them emotively. This is what happens when one defies the laws of nature and Fach stereotyping; deny a baritone an outlet for his baritone claw impulses, and bam! COUNTERTITS.

    • papopera says:

      Pfffffffttt I’ll never never get used to these guys singing like dames. Sorry.

  • ysabel says:

    What does it mean to sound like a laser pointer with the wrong battery in? Non capisco. Halp.

    • CruzSF says:

      I interpreted the “laser pointer” comment to mean that Kim looks like she’d project a small beam (because of her physical stature) but the sound that emerges is in fact much bigger.

      • fagliaccio says:

        wow, thanks for reading so carefully. I didn’t think I was being that artful, but I guess the vague metaphor wouldn’t have offended her fans and family. When i think of a laser beam, I think of a light that is bright, narrow and decidedly not warm. A pen laser pointer is also that, but small and annoying. One with a wrong battery installed might flicker and give uneven rays. Now I said how I really feel and expect the formidable Korean community in Chicago to be rioting outside my house.