By JOHN DeMERS
Someone might ask you someday: What, in terms of story, is the stupidest Verdi opera? And the answer might come to you: With the exception of a few, later, mostly Shakespearean adaptations, it’s whichever one you happen to be watching right now.
Still, the even more important question is: How could this Italian composer take such clunky plot lines built on mistaken identity, betrayal, witchcraft and “fate” – and imbue them with some of the most magnificent music ever written? You may well find yourself pondering this question while enjoying the first-rate Opera in the Heights production of Un Ballo in Maschera, with remaining performances at intimate Lambert Hall this Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
Fact is, the plot is smoother (that is to say, less stupid) than many. Man Loves Woman, Woman is Married to Man’s Best Friend, Best Friend Finds Out and Kills Man, Everybody Still Alive Feels Real Bad About It. You could almost make a movie with such a plot – and surely, some people already have. You’d simply have to throw out most of what Verdi put in, starting with a young boy played by a woman who sings super-catchy but meaningless songs whenever he/she walks on stage.
OK, enough. That’s Un Ballo in Maschera (often presented in English as A Masked Ball, but not at Opera in the Heights). And honestly, when it comes to the drama, director Matthew Ferrara does a fine job. As much as Verdi’s score lets him, he avoids having people just standing around signing (“park and bark,” he called it during an interview) and has actual relationships forming before our eyes. Verdi, apparently, lived and composed long before the storytelling dictate “Show me, don’t tell me” came into vogue. He tells, and tells, and then tells some more. Ferraro, himself a former ballet dancer with an intense understanding of things visual, worked with lighting designer Kevin Taylor and costume designer Dena Scheh to create one of the most atmospheric OH productions we’ve seen. At its best, this Ballo really does look like a movie – a great-to-look-at David Lean movie at that.
Maestro William Weibel works his usual magic, filling Lambert Hall with wonderful sounds from his smallish orchestra. Every OH production burnishes his reputation a bit more, not only for making a lot out of a little but for conducting in an intelligent manner that helps even listeners who seldom do so appreciate the score. Many times throughout Ballo, intriguing and unexpected touches Verdi put in come out in ways that are satisfying. This is particularly true behind the major arias, when our tendency is simply to listen to the singing. Weibel and Lambert’s excellent acoustics conspire to let us settle for that no longer.
OH is, by mission statement, mostly about singers. And in that sense, Ballo does not disappoint. As always, there are two casts, with different principals sharing duties over a total of six performances. The Emerald cast, which we caught Saturday night, featured the ringing high notes and passionate emoting of tenor Jonathan Hodel as Count Riccardo (we’re now sorry we missed him in 2009’s Pagliacci, just imagining his “Vesti la giubba”!) and the wonderful, long vocal lines of soprano Kirsten Hoiseth as his Amelia. She offers a convincing portrayal of this woman “torn between two lovers,” the other lover being the tormented and eventually murderous Renato as sung by Douglin Murray Schmidt. His rendition of the famous “Eri tu” is everything we could hope for.
Soo-Ah Park shines as Oscar, that young boy character we wish would go away. Her singing is utterly delightful, however, as are her ever-expressive eyes behind Buddy Holly glasses and overall comic acting – even when comedy seems just about the least appropriate thing in the world. And while the scary “witch” or “fortune-teller” Ulrica has the dramatic curse of appearing in Act I and then never turning up again, mezzo Kristin Patterson serves up singing so unforgettable we almost don’t notice that she’s gone for good. As always, the OH chorus is a treasure, benefiting in this instance (if hardly always in opera) from Ferraro giving them lots of believable things to do.
Perhaps most strikingly, Ferraro and his design team deliver Un Ballo in Maschera from its confusing roots somewhere sometime in the vague past (Sweden, or even stranger, some silly Italian’s idea of Boston) to “a European country” in what appears to be the 1930s. Almost-modern dress, in other words, with some even more modern pieces of U.S. Marine uniforms on the soldiers. At the very least, not having to look at men in puffy striped bloomers lets Verdi’s brilliant music rescue the stupid story once again.
Photos: (above) Jonathan Hodel as Riccardo; (middle) Kristin Patterson as Ulrica with OH Chorus; (below) Kirsten Hoiseth as Amelia, in Opera in the Heights’ Un Ballo in Maschera.