Opera Warhorses

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Review: A Stylishly Sung and Intelligently Staged “Masked Ball” at San Francisco Opera – October 4, 2014

October 5th, 2014

Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera”, loosely based on the historical assassination of Swedish King Gustavus III at a masked ball, is an iconic Verdian opera, which has a lustrous performance tradition at the San Francisco Opera..

[Below: King Gustavo (Ramón Vargas, front, second from left) has decided to ignore the advice of the Chief Magistrate (A. J. Gluekert, far left, wearing judicial wig) and take the royal court on a field trip in disguise; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


In its second 21st century San Francisco mounting,  an impressive cast of North American artists was assembled.

Six of the seven principal roles represent the Swedish royal court – Gustavo, sung by Mexican lyric tenor Ramón Vargas; Anckarström, the King’s chief minister and eventual assassin by American lyric baritone Thomas Hampson; Amelia, Anckarström’s wife by American soprano Juliana Di Giacomo; Oscar, the king’s page, by American coloratura soprano Heidi Stober; and the leaders of a conspiracy plotting to kill the king, Count Ribbing, sung by American bass Christian van Horn and Count Horn by American bass Scott Conner.

(The seventh principal is Dolora Zajick as  Madame Arvidson, who lives on society’s fringe, dabbles in black arts, and quite accurately predicts the future.)

The Swedish Masked Ball at San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera has, for the past 37 years has favored Verdi’s original intention of setting the opera in Sweden, rather than in the dramatically implausible Colonial Boston which Verdi had to do to meet the Italian censors’ demands.  (Reflecting on the censors’ intervention 155 years after the fact, the concept that a political assassination in Boston would seem to a dissident population less incendiary than one in Stockholm, suggests a lack of reality in the censors’ reasoning.)

The sets for San Francisco Opera’s elegant 1977 John Conklin production, created for Jose Carreras and Katia Ricciarelli, were (unwisely) destroyed by a previous general manager [see Missing “That 70’s Show”: S. F. “Ballo” — September 17, 2006], but Conklin’s costume designs remain. (My 2006 review obliquely explains why no set designer is listed in the company’s program.)

[Below: commedia dell’arte dancers perform at the Masked Ball; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


What one sees is an amalgam between “Swedish era” sets designed a decade ago for the Washington National Opera, subsequently purchased by the San Francisco Opera, and the 1977 John Conklin production’s costumes.

However, the scenic design, which has subsequently traveled to the Lyric Opera [21st Century Verdi: Radvanovsky Leads World Class Lyric Opera “Ballo” Cast – Chicago, November 15, 2010] and to San Diego [see A Star-bright “Ballo in Maschera” – San Diego Opera, March 8, 2014] has an internal consistency. Even though it merges sets and costumes from two productions, each element complements the other.

Ramón Vargas’ Gustavo

Gustavo is a role that traditionally can be sung by either a lyric tenor, or, alternatively, a spinto ten0r, whose voice is of heavier weight. Ramón Vargas is a lyric tenor. [See  Vargas, Podles Brilliant in Puzzle Box “Ballo”: Houston – November 2, 2007.]

[Below: Disguised as a seaman, Gustavo, the King of Sweden, (Ramón Vargas) sings a sailor’s barcarolle as Oscar (Heidi Stober, left, seated), looks on; edted image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


If Vargas’ is not the power voice that one usually hears in this role at the War Memorial, he is a stylish Verdi singer. His Barcarolle and final aria were expertly performed, and he led the great ensembles, such as the rousing chorus that ends the first scene, and the famous second scene quintet (preceded by some amusing faked self-choking) were memorable.

Thomas Hampson’s Count Anckarström and Juliana Di Giacomo’s Amelia Anckarström

The artists assigned the roles of the Count and Countess Ancharström were Thomas Hampson, in one of his too rare appearances at the San Francisco Opera, and Juliana Di Giacomo, making her company debut.

Only his second San Francisco Opera appearance in a Verdi role [see Hampson Transcends Quirky “Macbeth” in S. F. – November 18, 2007], Hampson brought both the smooth legato expected of a Verdi baritone and the dramatic intensity required of Anckarström’s great aria Eri tu.

[Below: Count Ancharström (Thomas Hampson), believing his wife to be unfaithful, prepares to seek vengeance; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


I had previously reported on Di Giacomo’s praiseworthy Donna Anna in Los Angeles [See Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Roguish Libertine, James Conlon’s Impressive Conducting, in Insightful “Don Giovanni” – Los Angeles Opera, September 22, 2012].

[Below: Amelia (Juliana Di Giacomo) contemplates her fate; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Yet, however appealing her fine Mozart performance, it is as a Verdi soprano that I suspect Di Giacomo will be in demand by opera companies seeking voices, such as hers, that are dramatically expressive and that can spin out the soaring Verdi melodies that lie high in the soprano range.

Dolora Zajick’s Madame Arvidson and Heidi Stober’s Oscar

Madame Arvidson, or Ulrica, as her name persists from the Boston version, was sung by veteran mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, who was a strong presence in this great character role.

[Below: Dolora Zajick as Madame Arvidson; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The character Oscar, whose high spirits are a counterbalance to the dangerous undercurrents that obsess the royal court and whose sparkling top notes frame Verdi’s great ensembles, was charmingly sung by Heidi Stober. She wore a costume that I suspect would have brought stares at the Swedish royal court, but which made her especially convincing as a young man,

[Below: Oscar (Heidi Stober, on platform at left, towers above (front row from left to right), Christian (Efrain Solis), Gustavo (Ramón Vargas), Anckarström (Thomas Hampson) and Madame Arvidson (Dolora Zajick); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Christian Van Horn’s Count Ribbing, Scott Conner’s Count Horn and the remaining cast

The conspirators that in the Boston version were Samuele and Tomasso (often called Sam and Tom by operagoers) in the Swedish version are the Counts Ribbing and Horn. The two roles are often stepping stones in the careers of numerous basso opera singers.

Importantly, the conspirator counts anchor both of “Ballo:’s famous quintets and their laughing duet, ridiculing Anckarström’s apparent cuckoldry by the king they intend to destroy, drives that character into their plot.

[Below: Count Anckarström (Thomas Hampson, left) enters into a regicide plot with Count Horn (Scott Conner, center) and Count Ribbing (Christian Van Horn, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Christian Van Horn has distinguished himself at San Francisco Opera’s War Memorial Opera House in such major roles as the Villains in Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann” and, earlier this season, as Oroveso in Bellini’s “Norma”. His sonorous presence as Ribbing, joined by Scott Conner in his San Francisco as an effective Count Horn, was especially welcome.

In the smaller roles, A. J. Gluekert was an appropriately fussy Chief Magistrate, trying to maintain some dignity even when being tuanted by Oscar. Efrain Solis was the jaunty mariner Christian, beneficiary of Madame Arvidson’s self-fulfilling prophecy. Christopher Jackson was Angela’s servant.

Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra long ago bonded with San Francisco Opera’s Music Director Nicola Luisotti, and the results of this marriage of talents is aurally (and visually, for those in Luisotti in their line of sight) evident.  Although Luisotti’s interests are broad, there is special magic when Luisotti conducts the great classics of the Italian repertory.

Ian Robertson’s San Francisco Opera Chorus performed, as one always expects, with distinction.

Unneeded Additions to “Ballo”‘s Baggage

With the widespread adoption by the last half of the 20th century of Ballo’s Swedish version, came what I regard as an unwelcome sideeffect. The convention of using the names of 18th century Swedish court personages, led to some famous productions who sought to introduce the subject of the real Gustavo’s sexuality.

Although the information on that subject is murky, this unleashed radical “Ballo” stagings, starting with that of Goeran Gentele, in which Gustavo is having an affair with his boy page Oscar, even while pining for Amelia. The Gay Gustavo theme continued on with Götz Friedrich’s Gay Stockholm conceptualization [see Power Verdi: Chanev, Marambio, Ataneli in Deutsche Oper Berlin “Ballo” – April 25, 2009.]

This “deconstruction” of Verdi’s opera was, to a considerable extent, satirized in the Houston Grand Opera production referenced above, although, in the process, muddling the story further.

Penning a Plausible Backstory

Although one could imagine rewriting the libretto and opera to give a clearer idea of the psychological backstory for the king’s complex motivations in Gentele’s or Friedrich’s takes on the story, it was clearly not a direction that Verdi intended. This San Francisco production plays the opera straight, and it works dramatically.

One can even infer the backstory of which Verdi would have approved. Verdi’s Gustavo is lonely and sexually repressed. He has found a confidante in his chief minister’s wife.

[Below: Amelia (Juliana Di Giamono, left) has been pursued by Gustavo (Ramon Vargas, right) to the hangman’s gibbet; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


As they shared their feelings with each other, their minds begin to wander towards an act that Amelia knows in her heart would have disastrous results. As it turns out, it didn’t even take an act of infidelity. Gustavo’s and Amelia’s admission to each other that they were prepared to actualize their desire (albeit in a wildly compromising place) was enough to bring the disaster about.

Jose Maria Condemi’s Staging and Gary Marder’s Lighting 

What San Francisco audiences was presented was an intelligent reading of Verdi’s masterpiece by Jose Maria Condemi, who brings two qualities to his every endeavor.

First, he is faithful to the composer’s and librettist’s intent. Second, he is attentive to every detail of the staging, assuring that every principal, every comprimario and every chorister is presenting a dramatically valid portrayal.

The opera’s title referring to dancing, Condemi gave rein to Choreographer Lawrence Pech, creating engaging performances by dancers representing a commedia dell’arte troupe.

One should watch the choristers dance the minuet at the masked ball, joined by Di Giacomo’s Amelia and Vargas’ Gustavo. Although the choristers always maintain the minuet’s proper steps and timing. the increasingly agitated conversation between Amelia and Gustavo result in the pair losing their timing, attracting the attention of the assassin Anckarström. Just another bit of the Condemi stage magic.

Special note should be made of how beautifully lit this production is, highlighting falling snow during Amelia’s great scene in the vicinity of the gallows and enhancing the spookiness of Madame Arvidson’s incantations.


With the excellent cast, Condemi’s credible staging, Luisotti’s conducting, and the attractive sets and costumes, it proved to be a highly likeable performance of “Ballo in Maschera”.

I recommend the producction with enthusiasm, both to the veteran operagoer, and to a person new to opera, especially a person seeking to experience one of the core classics of the operatic repertory.

For further discussion of “Ballo in Maschera” see the accompanying Facebook/ “Opera Warhorses” site.

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