Maryland Lyric Opera fields excellent cast in extravagant “Ballo in Maschera”

Mon Nov 14, 2022 at 3:12 pm
Photo of Un ballo in maschera

Arturo Chacón-Cruz and Indira Mahajan in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, presented by Maryland Lyric Opera. Photo: Julian Thomas Photography

Maryland Lyric Opera continued its season devoted to the music of Giuseppe Verdi this weekend. A concert rendition of Un Ballo in Maschera, heard in the second performance Sunday afternoon in the Music Center at Strathmore, offered stellar singing from its lead, tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz. In the ongoing rotation of guest conductors, since the departure of music director Louis Salemno, Italian maestro Andrea Licata took the helm.

The libretto obliquely tells the story of Gustav III, king of Sweden, who was assassinated during a masked ball at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm in 1792. Verdi’s librettist, Antonio Somma, drew upon an earlier libretto by Eugène Scribe, for Daniel Auber’s opera Gustave III. Italian censors, worried about the potential incendiary effects of showing an onstage regicide, forced Verdi to set the action in a non-royal court, first in Poland and eventually in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where the king became Riccardo, the English Earl of Warwick and colonial governor of Boston.

It is an unusual opera for Verdi, in that the focus is really on the tenor role, Riccardo (in 2010, the last role at Washington National Opera for Salvatore Licitra before his untimely death a year later). Arturo Chacón-Cruz deployed a bright, robust tone that captured the impetuous nature of the Count, as well as the charisma that makes the ruler a favorite of his people, shielding him at times from his enemies. With boundless energy, he gave the role’s many major arias and scenes their own punch and individuality. His high B-flat, and even a high C added to the end of his Act II duet with Amelia, soared beautifully, making even the character’s absurdly long death scene a delight.

Soprano Indira Mahajan, winner of the Marian Anderson Award in 2008, brought a vibrato-infused tone, rich like a dark wine, to the role of Amelia, the unrequited love interest of Riccardo. Her chest voice thundered in low passages, and the top could be powerful, up to quite a few high Cs, but also tender. Mahajan paired in lovely ways with the English horn solo in her first aria in Act II, and especially with the mournful cello solo, played by Fiona Thompson, in the Act III aria “Morrò, ma prima in grazia.”

As Renato, Amelia’s husband and Riccardo’s most trusted friend, baritone Aleksey Bogdanov was a dramatic, glowering presence, especially after he joined the assassination plot. The bass side of his voice resonated most powerfully, but as the evening progressed the top register grew more confident as well, after an unconvincing high G in the cadenza of his Act I aria. By the time of the celebrated aria “Eri tu” in Act III, Bogdanov reached the high notes with ease, adding a silken legato in the affecting section with the two flutes and harp.

Photo of Un Ballo in Maschera

Arturo Chacón-Cruz (Riccardo) and Daryl Freedman (Ulrica). Photo: Julian Thomas Photography

Bogdanov was familiar from his years in the Cafritz Young Artist program at Washington National Opera, as was the mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman, who in this performance contributed a powerhouse interpretation of the witch Ulrica. This character, who warns Riccardo of his impending assassination at the hand of his best friend, is based on Ulrica Arfvidsson, the Swedish medium who predicted the murder of Gustav III, likely because of her inside knowledge of the king’s court. Hearkening back to the characterization of the witches in Macbeth, Verdi pulls out all the stops in this frightening music, and Freedman’s puissant voice rang out with portentous strength from the low Gs up to high A-flat.

Among the supporting cast, soprano Aitana Sanz made a noteworthy company debut as Oscar, Riccardo’s page, a trouser role. Her light and airy voice sometimes got covered by the orchestra, but she had a pleasing, silvery presence in the ensembles. (Although Verdi and his librettist toned down the implication of Gustav III’s homosexuality, made explicit in the earlier Auber opera, it is often difficult not to see the cross-dressed page’s excitable nature through the lens of camp.) Baritone Javier Arrey had a fine cameo appearance as the sailor, Silvano, and bass-baritones Michael Pitocchi and Adam Cioffari made a sneering duo as the conspirators in the assassination. The chorus, prepared by Husan Park, added a full and well-coordinated sound from their seats in the balcony.

Licata conducted mostly while seated in a chair on the podium. This may have complicated sightlines for distant parts of the orchestra, as there were some misalignments among sections, especially the strings, during the overture, for example. His gestures, efficient and incisive, kept the large ensemble scenes on track, and he displayed great sensitivity to balances. The brilliant ball scene, the tumultuous finale of Act III, made quite an impression, coordinated among the chorus in the balcony, the off-stage banda, the on-stage string ensemble (played by the orchestra principals), and the entire orchestra. The off-stage banda of eleven musicians plays through much of the Act III finale, an ingenious dramatic use of the ensemble. At full volume, the high clarinets (one in A-flat and one in E-flat) were dodgy in intonation, which added a rustic touch. The sound effect of the fatal gunshot came, quite effectively, from a drum.

Maryland Lyric Opera will perform Verdi’s Falstaff January 20 and 22, 2023.

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