It’s nice to see Minnesota Opera staging Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball). It’s one of Verdi’s masterpieces and should be better known. Though ostensibly the tale of a tragic love triangle, it is actually a profoundly political meditation on the responsibilities of a ruler.
As such, Minnesota Opera’s decision to return the opera to its original setting in the glittering court of Sweden’s King Gustavus III was apt. (The censors in 1859 Rome forced Verdi to change the location to colonial Boston, with the king demoted to colonial governor to avoid representing regicide onstage, despite the improbability of a masked ball in Puritan Massachusetts.)
Amidst an atmosphere of unrest and threats of assassination, the mercurial Gustavus loves Amelia, the wife of his dearest friend and closest ally, Count Anckarström. The king is struggling with conflicting impulses, represented by the two men closest to him, the aristocratic and virtuous Anckarström and the flighty and pleasure-loving page, Oscar. As a monarch with absolute power, Gustavus chooses to pursue Amelia. His noblest nature wins out in the end, but not before Anckarström misinterprets the flirtation and exacts revenge.
Director James Robinson clearly takes the work seriously. From the opening curtain, he created a palpable sense of menace. Allen Moyer’s immensely inventive set has Gustavus’s chamber buckle and break apart, making it as if the fortuneteller, Ulrica, has emerged from the bowels of the earth to prophesy Gustavus’s death. And the claustrophobia of the scene in which Anckarström confronts his wife heightens the drama. However, the surrealistic representation of the gallows in Act Two was distracting, and the final masked ball—typically a spectacular showpiece—was something of an anticlimax, in part because of James Schuette’s drab, gray costumes.
Robinson was particularly effective in using the chorus, staging them with telling detail. In many ways, the chorus is the star of this production, and they responded with some robust singing. But Robinson seemed at a loss in the great Act Two duet in which Gustavus and Amelia admit their love, leaving the actors stranded on an almost completely bare stage. In the final act, Robinson also chose to upstage the pair’s final duet with a distracting puppet show, an odd choice that was out of character with the rest of the production.
Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya was best at building toward grand climaxes. Elsewhere, however, the music tended to lose momentum. Charles Taylor sang quite elegantly as Anckarström, though he lacked the kind of dark sound required to fully exploit the character’s rage. And his acting was mostly a collection of stock operatic gestures.
Cynthia Lawrence made her Minnesota Opera debut in 2000, in the lyric role of the Countess in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Pushing her voice to meet the requirements of heavier, spinto roles such as Amelia has left a noticeable break between her chest and head voices, along with a shrill and wobbly top. But her singing was frequently thrilling, whatever the ultimate cost.
As Gustavus, Evan Bowers was full-throated from his first entrance. He handled the music with finesse and created a dashing character. But he lacked that last measure of nobility to truly convey the character’s self-sacrifice. His death left me unmoved.
It was Nili Riemer, in the trouser role of Oscar, who delivered the most satisfying performance. Her quicksilver soprano made easy work of the punishing tessitura and demanding coloratura. What’s more, she made the foolishly self-important youth a delight at each appearance.
Jill Grove’s Ulrica was in the same class. Her dark, cavernous voice seemed to emerge from the bowels of the earth. Along with a thrilling top and eerie stage presence, she made the fortuneteller mysterious and captivating.
For all its faults, much of this production was stirring and did the great composer proud. And in the end, Verdi won out. His humanity and depth of feeling carried the day.
A Masked Ball runs through September 30 at the Ordway.