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Madison Opera’s “A Masked Ball” is Masterful

October 29, 2012

No one ever criticized an opera for having too complicated a libretto, but then it’s an art form designed to showcase music more than words. In the worst cases, glorious melodies outshine near-idiotic storylines, but every now and then operas emerge that show a refined artistic balance among components, leading to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Madison Opera’s production this past weekend of Giuseppe Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” is a textbook example of how splendid opera can be when it is well handled.

Granted, the story was subject to repeated rewrites when it was first offered in the 19th Century. The true tale of the assassination of Sweden’s King Gustave III already had been dressed up to include the requisite but fictional love triangle, but that still didn’t satisfy censors of the day.

Verdi and librettist Antonio Somma went through countless versions trying appease authorities appalled at having a monarch murdered on stage. The action was moved from Sweden to Albania to Boston and back again, and the monarch turned into a Duke, then a commoner, then back to King. It’s interesting to note that this was Somma’s first opera, and he never in his life wrote another.

However, the back-and-forth may have evened out the creases, resulting in the version mounted in Madison Opera’s telling of the tale. In this case, the artists’ suffering led to a work best described by a single word: Masterful.

The story, in short, involves political machinations against Gustave (tenor William Joyner) by a group of assassins (all baritones dressed in back, of course.) Their goal is to assassinate Gustave at an upcoming masked ball. All of that is historical fact.

For the opera’s sake, Gastave also is in love with Amelia (soprano Alexandra LoBianco), wife of the king’s counselor and best friend Count Renato Anckarstrom (baritone Hyung Yun.) Renato comes to learn of the romance and, even though the pair chooses not to act on their passions, his humiliation is such that he joins with the conspirators and personally carries out the assassination. All Sweden – or at least the entire cast – mourns as the curtain falls on the dying monarch.

Somma’s libretto is tightly drawn, and the action seems palpable and effective under Kristine McIntyre’s stage direction, lending greater credibility and appeal to a narrative threaded with Verdi’s lush score. The production is further helped by the quality of voice present.

Joyner’s Gustave is a solid performance, serving as vocal straight man to a conflicted Renato expertly rendered by Hyung. As Amelia, LoBianco’s soprano soars through Overture Hall’s heights, and the three voices come together several times with dramatically effective musical passages that lend palpable emotion to the tragic tale.

As Ulrica, the seer who predicts Gustave’s demise, mezzo-soprano Jeniece Golbourne spends far too little time on stage for so tremendous a talent, but such is the nature of the narrative.

Caitlin Cisler does an absolutely delightful turn as Oscar the page, her vibrant soprano providing color and character, including a particularly effective vocal staccato during the masked ball’s largely legato passages. As the drama surges forward, Cisler dances to her own melodies in effective contrast that may too often go unnoticed by an audience focused on the principles. Kudos to both the performer and director for conspiring to add such an effective layer of character to the production.

Under Kathryn Smith’s oversight, Madison Opera has continued its march forward. “A Masked Ball” adds another feather to Smith’s cap, and in this case one of delightfully bright plumage.

 

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