The Maryland Lyric Opera continued its season devoted to the music of Giuseppe Verdi this weekend. A concert performance of A Ballo in Maschera, heard during the second performance Sunday afternoon at the Music Center in Strathmore, offered stellar vocals from its lead singer, tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz. In the continuous rotation of guest chefs, since the Departure from musical 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 at a masked ball at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm in 1792. Verdi’s librettist Antonio Somma drew inspiration from an earlier libretto by ‘Eugène Scribe, for the opera by Daniel Auber Gustav III. Italian censors, worried about the potential incendiary effects of showing a regicide on stage, forced Verdi to take the action to a non-royal court, first in Poland and eventually in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where the king is became Riccardo, the English Earl of Warwick. and Colonial Governor of Boston.
This is an unusual opera for Verdi, in that the focus is really on the role of the tenor, Riccardo (in 2010, the last role at the Washington National Opera for Salvatore Licitra before his untimely death a year later). Arturo Chacón-Cruz deployed a bright, rugged tone that captured the count’s brash nature, as well as the charisma that made the ruler a favorite of his people, sometimes protecting him 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 at 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 as a dark wine, to the role of Amelia, Riccardo’s unrequited love interest. His chest voice thundered in the low passages, and the top could be powerful, up to quite a few high Cs, but also tender. Mahajan paired charmingly with the English horn solo in her first Act II aria, and especially with the mournful cello solo, played by Fiona Thompson, in the Act III aria “Morrò, my prima in grazia”.
As Renato, Amelia’s husband and Riccardo’s most trusted friend, baritone Aleksey Bogdanov was a dramatic and contemptuous presence, especially after joining the assassination plot. The low side of his voice sounded most powerfully, but as the evening progressed the upper register also became more confident, after an unconvincing high G in the cadence of his Act I aria. of the famous aria “Eri tu” from Act III, Bogdanov hits the high notes with ease, adding silky legato in the touching section with both flutes and harp.
Bogdanov was familiar from his years in the Cafritz Young Artist Program at the Washington National Opera, just like the mezzo-soprano Daryl Freeman, who in this performance contributed a powerful rendition of the witch Ulrica. This character, who warns Riccardo of his impending assassination at the hands of his best friend, is based on Ulrica Arfvidsson, the Swedish psychic who predicted the murder of Gustav III, likely due to her intimate knowledge of the king’s court. Returning to the characterization of witches in macbethVerdi pulls out all the stops in this chilling music, and Freedman’s mighty voice rings out with prodigious force from low G to high A-flat.
Among the supporting cast, mezzo-soprano Aitana Sanz made a notable company debut as Riccardo’s Oscar page, a pants role. Her light, airy voice was sometimes drowned out by the orchestra, but she had a pleasant, silvery presence in the ensembles. (Although Verdi and his librettist have toned down the implication of Gustav III’s homosexuality, made explicit in the earlier Auber opera, it is often hard not to see the excitable nature of the transvestite page through the lens of the camp.) Baritone Javier Arrey had a nice cameo appearance as sailor Silvano, and low-baritones Michael Pitocchi and Adam Cioffari formed a sneering duo as assassination plotters. The choir, prepared by Husan Park, added a full and well-coordinated sound from their seats on the balcony.
Licata led most of the time sitting in a chair on the podium. This can have complicated lines of sight for distant parts of the orchestra, as there were misalignments between sections, especially the strings, during the opening, for example. His gestures, effective and incisive, maintain the course of the great ensemble scenes and he shows great sensitivity to balance. The brilliant ballroom scene, the tumultuous finale of Act III, made quite an impression, coordinated between the balcony choir, the banda offstage, the string ensemble onstage (played by the principals of the orchestra) and the whole orchestra. The eleven-piece off-stage banda plays for 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) had questionable intonation, which added a rustic touch. The sound effect of the fatal shot came, quite effectively, from a drum.
Maryland Lyric Opera will perform Verdi Falstaff January 20 and 22, 2023. mdlo.org