San Francisco Opera Presents Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera”

Ball Masked, Fireworks Obscured

Review by Janos Gereben: San Francisco, 9/8/06
All photos by Terrence McCarthy

San Francisco Opera opened its 84th season tonight with a decent but unexceptional production of Verdi's "The Masked Ball." Unfair as it may be to the hardworking artists, the fact is that opera is among the few human ventures where "good enough" isn't. This "Ballo" was definitely adequate, but that rings few chimes. War Memorial Opera House audiences on opening nights lack the expertise of the real fans in the standing room, but tonight's bejeweled society patrons responded appropriately: with scant, polite applause, even after the opera's few "big numbers."

The most consistent and interesting performance came from the pit, under Marco Armiliato's excellent direction. The instruments conveyed the bravura and excitement lacking otherwise. On the stage, sadly, the much-expected "homecoming" star, Deborah Voigt, had an off night. Those who have had the pleasure of listening to her since her 1985 Merola year never heard her in as much trouble as during Amelia's Act 2 aria, "Ecco l'orrido campo."

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The voice never took off, and at the end of the aria, Voigt alarmingly ran out of both air and on-pitch notes. She recovered almost immediately in the subsequent duet, and the rest of the opera, but not once during the evening did she sing at the level San Francisco audiences have come to expect from her.

No such mishap befell the other singers… nor did they deliver minimally-required excitement. In this, the 1858 "Swedish" version, the role of King Gustavus served as the local debut of Marcus Haddock. He sang prettily, bringing to mind a Broadway singing star, who would benefit from amplification. Ditto for miniscule Anna Christy's Oscar, well but quietly sung, helping to make a musical out of the Verdi opus.

Another house debut, that of Tichina Vaughn, as Madame Arvidson (Ulrica in the "real thing"), resulted in acceptable singing, albeit as the least dramatic and scary witch in company history. Opera Center veterans Joshua Bloom, Eugene Brancoveanu, and Daniel Harper acquitted themselves well, but their colleague from whom fireworks may be more reasonably expected, the tenor Sean Panikkar was in the audience, not on stage.

Far and away, the most "interesting" vocal performance came from Ambrogio Maestri, making his San Francisco debut as Anckarström (Renato). This mountain of a man has a big – if not particularly beautiful – voice, which he produces effortlessly, but without much presence. He started singing with such understated, quiet manner that expectation of a big forte was inevitable, but when it came, the sound was not musical, sounded more like a shout. His "Eri tu" – big voice and all – was simply uninteresting, Armiliato's orchestra urging him on, but Maestri keeping it cool… and boring.

Besides the orchestra's performance, the only other "operatic excitement" came during a couple of seconds when Ian Robertson's chorus sang a hushed, hair-raising phrase in the scene with Ulrika. HERE was the impact, the intensity one expects from opera, but it went away, not coming back until the very end, and a pretty good dying scene by Haddock's King (notwithstanding Gina Lapinski's awkward physical direction of having the tenor somewhere between his back and his side).

This was the first opening night for David Gockley as general director, and the 25-minute delay for the curtain to go up was partly due to the usual heavy party traffic, but also to rather provincial-sounding speeches and acknowledgments. It was fun, however, to experience a gala night audience, presumably from the affluent sector of society, applaud warmly two prominent Democrats – Mayor Gavin Newsom and Rep. Nancy Pelosi. Only in San Francisco…

Gockley has already put his mark on the house by moving the supertitle screen back to the center (from the sides favored by his predecessor, Pamela Rosenberg), something pleasing many patrons… except those in the back of the orchestra and in the standing room, who once again must fend for themselves.

Even those who could see the supertitles had to deal with a curious omission: in Act 1, the King's identification of Renato as "the husband of the woman I love" was not translated, leaving those not fluent in Italian wonder why the King was so upset when Renato says that he knows "the secret." Perhaps it was a conscious decision to avoid a "spoiler." At any rate, it provided some of the excitement missing from the voices.

Review by Janos Gereben

Photos by Terrence McCarthy

CAST
Amelia: Deborah Voigt
King Gustav: Marcus Haddock
Anckarström: Ambrogio Maestri
Ulrica: Tichina Vaughn
Oscar: Anna Christy

PRODUCTION
Conductor: Marco Armiliato
Stage Director: Gina Lapinski
Set Designer: Zack Brown

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