By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2010; C01
"Un Ballo in Maschera" is one of Verdi's loveliest operas. Though it's a tragedy, its music is filled with light, laughter and sweet tunes, and its hero is one of the more appealing tenors in the repertory. The Washington National Opera responded to at least one of these traits in Saturday night's season-opening production, casting the lead role -- King Gustavo of Sweden -- with Salvatore Licitra, a big, blunt, likable tenor, and the one big-name star of the night.
For the rest, WNO fell back on a summer-stock formula: Bring in one recognizable name and flesh it out with what you can afford. The other singers are less well known, including a couple of current and recent Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists (Aleksey Bogdanov made a disproportionate impact in the tiny role of Christian). And James Robinson's production, a three-year-old effort that's already been seen in Colorado, Boston and Minnesota, is of the increasingly prevalent Virtue of Necessity school of bare-bones opera directing: Allen Moyer's sets feature chandeliers and a few pieces of furniture on a largely empty stage.
The question, this season, is going to be figuring out to what standards this financially struggling company should be held. Has WNO become, in effect, a decent provincial company, in which case this show was just fine? Or is it still striving to compete on an international level? If the latter, this "Ballo" falls short.
"Ballo," which continues through Sept. 25, was subject to "updating" even before its premiere in 1859. King Gustavo loves Amelia, his best friend's wife; and his best friend, enraged, kills him. When Verdi wrote the opera, the censors objected, less on the grounds of the illicit relationship than of the onstage depiction of a king's murder, and the setting was shifted from Sweden to colonial Boston. Most directors now return the action to the locale Verdi intended, which mainly involves switching around the names of the characters ("Gustavo" is "Riccardo" in the more familiar Boston version). The only "Swedish" local color in Robinson's production was the stereotypically gray, sober-Lutheran cast of the titular masked ball, which looked not like a revel but like an old-school church meeting.
Details such as locale hardly mattered; it was a nuance beyond the abilities of this particular performance. Licitra was endearing onstage in the way that a large dog is endearing. He sang with a lot of goodwill and much more volume than anyone else, and made some wonderful ringing tenor sounds, but also simply skated over some of his notes and offered a well-meaning approximation of the role. He also snapped into sharper focus whenever he had someone to play against.
But none of the other singers had much to say either. Too often, what they were communicating onstage sounded less like rage or passion or ardent love than simply "Here are some tricky notes that I am singing; I am pleased that I hit them all!" This was the case in, for instance, the cadenza of Amelia's usually heart-rending aria "Morro, ma prima in grazia": Tamara Wilson gave a competent performance of the role, but her expression is still a work in progress. As Count Anckarström, the wronged husband, Luca Salsi had more the shape of a baritone than the substance; his lower register was almost inaudible.
Robinson didn't necessarily help by introducing clever stage business rather than focusing on developing the characters. The conspirators Count Ribbing and Count Horn (Kenneth Kellogg and Julien Robbins) showed they were bad guys by roughing up the fortuneteller Ulrica (a.k.a. Mam'zelle Arvidson, sung by Elena Manistina, a rather shrill mezzo), and then killing her. Micaëla Oeste's Oscar, the king's androgynous page -- another lovable role -- was constantly telegraphing her high spirits by jumping up on a chair or leaping onto Count Ribbing's back, which can't have made singing the part any easier, though she cut an elegant figure.
Nor did the singers get a lot of help from Daniele Callegari, the conductor making his WNO debut. Indeed, though Callegari has a respectable big-company career, he seemed at a loss to correct some of the problems here, like keeping the ensembles together. He did marshal himself, after a sloppy Act 1, to deliver a real spark in the first part of Act 2.
But maybe it's time, with WNO, to return to a more supportive school of criticism, focusing less on whether it is done well and instead applauding the fact that they got it onstage at all. This is not a production that breaks new ground, or singing that lifts you out of your seat -- but it is a live performance of a wonderful opera. As it seems likely that WNO will merge with the Kennedy Center to solve its financial disarray, one wonders if this move will help the company return to higher artistic aspirations. In the meantime: enjoy "Ballo," close your eyes and think of Italy.
Un Ballo in Maschera
continues through Sept. 25 at the Kennedy Center Opera House; the free "Opera in the Outfield" broadcast to Nationals Park takes place on Sept. 19.