I 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]