The big news out of the Bay this week, of course, is that David Gockley, after ten years at the helm here and over forty in opera, has decided not to pull a Bloomberg/Galupe-Borszkh—which is to say he’s stepping down as scheduled at the end of his current contract in July of next year. As with the Volpe-Gelb interregnum, Gockley will continue to have a hand in things such as casting until 2017-2018, so I guess there’s still a chance we’ll get to hear Patricia Racette’s Mama Rose or at the very least, her Commendatore. Coming when it did, this item may have overshadowed the opening of Ballo, which is a charitable way of saying that Ballo undershadowed this item.
At the risk of making one more thing a referendum on traditional stagings versus less literal ones, Jose Maria Condemi’s pretty powdered wig of a production reminds us of one important fact: that actors, including them what sing, respond to their surroundings. One yard too many of silk brocade and folks default to a gestural language that flattens all of love and death and lust and betrayal to the whimpered question “what the hell should I do with my hands?!” Conductors too may, as Nicola Luisotti did, dispense in a routine way with expository scenes, saving the blood and guts for a few choice moments like the big rock/paper/scissors game for dibs on killing Gustavo.
Even the most ballsy singers respond to the faint odor of mothballs. I never could have imagined I would use the word“tentative” to describe Dolora Zajick, but there is no other word for her traversal here of Madame Arvidson. Recently an interesting, nervous Ulrica for David Alden, she only pulled out the stops late in the act. Otherwise, outside of her foghorn-like middle voice, she sounded like an ordinary singer, not the force of nature we’ve come to love and rely on, fading out especially down low. “Silenzio!” indeed. All the while, she reverted to the “would it bother you if I sang some Verdi?” look she generally wore much earlier in her career, before experience and good direction made more of her.
More roundly disappointing, I’m sorry to report, was the usually splendid Ramón Vargas. One suspects indisposition, as Vargas has sung the role all over the place and of course has done years of duty as the Met’s most reliable tenorial asset. Here he was consistently underpowered and sounded try and tight up top. Lightly accompanied moments in “O qual soave brivido” let him spin an articulate line, only to build to the most timid climax. In duets, he sounded to be on another, more distant stage from his colleagues.
Listen, do critics ever recuse themselves about certain singers? Because I know everyone in the world is mad about Thomas Hampson, and I’m not quite vain enough to think that I’m right and they’re wrong. His Anckarstrom was intelligently sung, of course, and “Eri tu” got the warmest ovation of the evening, but for me, wary as I am of those categories opera queens use to disapprove of everything, he has rarely convinced me as a Verdi baritone, and this was not a notable exception. The third act confrontation with Amelia, often hair-raising in a Life or Death sort of way, came off as so much mansplaining. It remains a handsome sound, of course.
Oscar is that rare role that benefits from good old-fashioned soubrette shrillness. Heidi Stober, whose lyric voice has a lovely bloom to it, only got the chance to show it off much in “Saper vorreste.” She was also the beneficiary of some of the worst stage business, as when the conspirators (heartily sung by Christian van Horn and Scott Conner) played keep-away, alas, with her tricorn. See because she’s a girl. And so she’s kind of short. Laugh tracks: coming soon to an opera house near you.
But there’s very good news here, unless you count it as bad news that you probably should see this despite its longeurs. As you may have read, the marvellous Krasimira Stoyanova canceled some time back, leaving some of us primed for disappointment. Instead, we were forced to admit that sometimes things go right. Julianna di Giacomo, not so long ago a slightly underdeveloped Verdienne at Caramoor, is something like perfect as Amelia. She is dramatic in declamation; her legato is legit; the chest voice is well-integrated and judiciously used and yes, the sound is radiant and well-sized for a big house. Hers bids fair to be an important career.
Following something less successful than last month’s Norma, the current Ballo might seem less like an afterthought. Perhaps it’s best to think of it as a showcase for a new star.