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Un Ballo in Maschera (3/8/14) & Don Quichotte (4/5/14)
San Diego Opera
Stoyanova, Beczala and Kim in San Diego Opera's Ballo in Maschera
© Ken Howard 2014
High standards: Furlanetto and Chama in San Diego's Don Quichotte
© Ken Howard 2014
Just weeks before San Diego Opera made the shocking announcement that the company would close at the end of the current season, SDO offered its audiences a wonderfully sung, traditional production of Giuseppe Verdi's Ballo in Maschera, directed by Lesley Koenig (seen Mar. 8). The original setting of the opera, with the action placed in the court of the King of Sweden in 1792, was utilized here, with lighting by Gary Marder and costumes and sets by John Conklin, borrowed from San Francisco Opera.
This Ballo production marked the return to SDO of tenor Piotr Beczala, who made his company debut in 2010, as Rodolfo in La Bohème. Beczala was in glorious voice from the moment he took the stage as Gustav III. Blessed with surpassing vocal beauty, ease of delivery and a fine, ardent physicality, the tenor visibly loves to sing, and the production gave him numerous opportunities to do so brilliantly, including the Act III prologue to the ball scene, "Ma se m'è forza perderti."
Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe made a long-awaited SDO debut as Madame Arvidson, known as Ulrica, the seer in league with the dark side. Blythe's is a remarkably sumptuous voice, and her performance was well paced. Verdi's ensemble, conducted by Italian maestro Massimo Zanetti in his company debut, was so riveting both musically and dramatically that I could hardly bear for the Act I scene in Ulrica's lair to end; Zanetti and his principals provided an indelible operatic moment. Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, another SDO debutant, was Amelia Anckarström, the wife of Gustav's trusted friend, Count Anckarström. Stoyanova has all the qualities needed for an extraordinary Verdi soprano, including a steely quality that cuts through large ensembles, chorus, orchestra and hidden bandas, and she floats exceedingly beautiful high pianissimos. Greek baritone Aris Argiris made his San Diego Opera and North American debuts as Anckarström. He is handsome and an adept actor, and he possesses a fine lyric baritone, shown to especially good advantage in his Act II aria, "Eri tu," in which the high notes were sung stunningly well. On opening night, however, there was an indefinable hesitancy, both in vocal line and in physicality, that kept his performance from being optimal.
Kathleen Kim made her SDO debut in the pants role of Gustav's page, Oscar. She is nimble and appealing, although I found her voice hard-edged in places. Kenneth von Heidecke provided commedia Zanni-influenced choreography for the ball, and the SDO chorus, prepared by chorus master Charles F. Prestinari, presented moments of thrilling dynamic contrast, especially in the prolonged death of Gustav, during which he absolves Amelia and forgives Anckarström.
Throughout, Zanetti conducted briskly and with great attention to the singers' needs. The tempo and attention to detail contributed enormously to this production — traditional, yes, but wondrous indeed.
San Diego Opera's April 5 opening of Massenet's Don Quichotte began with an onstage speech by the company's general and artistic director, Ian Campbell, which was greeted by boos and catcalls. Campbell, who has led the company since 1983, had announced on March 19 the company's impending closure at the end of its forty-ninth season. Should Don Quichotte prove to be San Diego Opera's swan song, the organization went out with artistic head held high.
The company-owned production, with scenic design by Ralph Funicello, was built in 2009, when bass Ferruccio Furlanetto sang his first local performances of the "lunatic apostle," an assignment he repeated this season. German mezzo-soprano Anke Vondung (Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, 2011) made her role debut as Dulcinée, and Argentine bass-baritone Eduardo Chama returned to SDO as Sancho Panza.
The opera, which had its first performance in 1910, with Feodor Chaliapin heading the cast, has been criticized as lesser Massenet. Instead of writing arias easily separated from the rest of the score, Massenet's forward-looking, through-composed opera blends melodies and motifs, distributing them between orchestra and singers, in some cases cutting short an aria to fly off into an orchestral riff. Nonetheless, the opera remains a grand vehicle for three singing actors, especially when they are as accomplished as those in San Diego this season.
Chama possesses a warm, expressive voice, and the role of Sancho seems made for him. Chama was particularly affecting in Sancho's Act IV rebuke to Dulcinée's friends, who make fun of Don Quichotte. In Henri Cain's libretto, based on a play by Jacques Le Lorrain, Dulcinée is not so much a strumpet as a young noblewoman exploring the power of her beauty. Unaware of the depth of Quichotte's love for her, Dulcinée sends him on a quest to recover pearls stolen from her by brigands, certain that he will be killed during the endeavor. Vivacious throughout, Vondung captivated the audience with her splendid vocalism ("Quand apparaissent les étoiles") and seemed to enjoy the role to the hilt.
Furlanetto, who made his SDO debut in 1985 as Verdi's Oberto, has established himself as a local favorite with his performances as Méphistophélès in Faust, Don Giovanni, King Philip and Boris Godunov, among others. His elegant singing and acting prowess are reason enough for producing Don Quichotte, which he has sung in Palermo, Moscow and St. Petersburg. The scene in which Dulcinée ultimately rejects Don Quichotte ("Marchez dans mon chemin") was extremely moving: Furlanetto appeared to become catatonic immediately and was led away, lance drooping, by Chama's Sancho, to whom he had promised rewards and riches, including his own island. Under a star-filled sky, the dying knight errant bequeathed only the island of dreams, perhaps the only reward that really matters.
The 2009 SDO staging was directed by Campbell. The company's Don Quichotte director in 2014 was Keturah Stickann, whose deployment of the mixed chorus supported their singing completely; in the brigands' camp, the men were exemplary. As before, SDO resident conductor Karen Keltner, a specialist in French repertoire, led the San Diego Symphony with sensitivity; the San Diego Symphony played the interludes with great beauty.
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