Review: Missing “That 70’s Show” – San Francisco Opera “Ballo” – September 17, 2006

Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera” returned to the San Francisco Opera with the role of Amelia reprised by Deborah Voigt.  She again proved herself to be a full-voiced Verdian dramatic soprano, in a role she had sung 16 years ago here in the excellent company of Ermanno Mauro.

Her Gustavo/Riccardo in the 2006 performance was Marcus Haddock, a leggiero tenor who has set his sites on heavier tenor roles.  (I had seen him as Tybalt in Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” at the Washington National Opera in 1987.)

Former Director Pamela Rosenberg, responsible for this cast, tended to sign singers without seeming to have a great deal of concern about whether they had voices that could match the size of the War Memorial.  This is particularly a concern in operas with a larger orchestra.

Haddock, whose voice has an appealing quality, arguably should have debuted in a lighter role with a smaller orchestra, and not have been cast in the leading tenor role in the showcase opening night production.  (The performance I attended was its third performance.)

[Below: Deborah Voigt as Amelia; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The Anckarstrom/Renato role was played by Ambrogio Maestri, who has the kind of large voice that nicely fits the opera house.  After an unimpressive start, he displayed true ability in the aria “Eri tu”.

Tichina Vaughn (Madame Arvidson/Ulrica) and Anna Christy (Oscar) met at least the minimum expectations of their parts. Eugene Brancoveanu, notable in his role as Franz in Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” this season, was impressive again in the comprimario part of Christian/Silvano.

[Below: Ambrogio Maestri as Count Anckarstrom.  Edited images, based on Terrence McCarthy photographs, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Gina Lapinski, the stage director, felt obliged to add unnecessary details to the stage action.  Lapinski’s Swedish court seems much too egalitarian for a royal palace at a time exactly contemporaneous with the French revolution’s beheading of Louis XVI.

When the King does not immediately consent to the Chief Justice’s recommendation to banish Madame Arvidson/Ulrica, the Justice storms around the stage, fuming.

When the King then decides to sign the banishment document, his page grabs the King’s hand to prevent his signature — this on top of a royal spontaneity already built into the opera’s libretto.  No wonder such an implausible sovereign had detractors.

[Below: Madame Arvidson’s Act II establishment for fortune-telling. Edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Later, when Amelia is revealed in a compromising situation at the gallows, Lapinski has the conspirators Count Horn/Samuele and Count Warting/Tommaso seize Amelia’s scarf from her, play with it, and then use it to tease her.

Later when Count Horn draws Anckarstrom’s name from the urn, he throws the lot on the floor.  When Oscar arrives with the invitation to the Masked Ball, he picks up the lot (as part of some 18th century Swedish anti-litter campaign?) and hands it back to the conspirator.

Marco Armiliato, the conductor, continued in the tradition of those Italian conductors (Toscanini the most famous) who conduct without scores.  He also had to endure some of the longest scene changes in the opera’s history, indicative that sets were being used that were not built to conform to the stage and  stage apparatus designed for productions at the War Memorial Opera House.

The opera’s program celebrated the costumes by John Conklin, which it noted had been used in every S.F. opera performance of “Ballo” since Conklin’s new production in 1977, which starred Jose Carreras, Katia Ricciarelli, Yuri Mazurok, Patricia Payne and Kathleen Battle.

The Conklin production was part of the legacy of former General Director Kurt Herbert Adler, who throughout the  1970s invested in the creation of a group of new productions, each costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, of standard repertory operas, designed to last a generation or more.

[Below: the scene of the masked ball.  Edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The San Francisco Opera’s 2006 Summer Session ended with a performance of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” for which its program noted that “[s]cenery, costumes and wigs constructed in the San Francisco Opera workshops”.

The Fall season opened with a performance of Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera” whose program included the dual notations that “[s]cenery and props originally created for Washington National Opera” and “[c]ostumes and wigs created in the San Francisco Opera workshops”.

Of course, the “Nozze” sets were created by Zack Brown in 1982 for the San Francisco War Memorial Stage and the “Ballo” sets were created by Brown for the Washington National Opera, who apparently sold them to Miami’s Florida State Opera, and they now seem to be owned by S. F. Opera.

My recent “Nozze” review [S. F. “Nozze di Figaro” – July 2, 2006] suggests that Brown has dissociated himself from both productions — perhaps because neither really fits Brown’s current style (much admired by this writer and represented at least in the S. F. Opera’s existing sets for Verdi’s “Don Carlos”), but probably also because no budget existed for Brown, the “Nozze” and “Ballo” set designer to come to San Francisco to supervise these productions’ revivals.

However, there is a probably a much more important story, relating to the current state of the Adler legacy of great productions, that transcends any discussion of the past, current and future relationships between S. F. Opera and Zack Brown. (Brown’s first effort in San Francisco, Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” in 1979 was itself one of that series of new productions from the Adler era.)

[Below: Marcus Haddock as the dying King, with Anna Christy as Oscar.  Edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francsico Opera.]

As noted in my review of S. F. Opera’s presentation of Tchaikovsky’s “Maid of Orleans”, we are at the cusp of the changeover between the General Directorship of Pamela Rosenberg and that of David Gockley, and in several cases the transition will not appear to be a smooth one.

The “Ballo” is a case in point.  With a cast chosen by Rosenberg, and consisting of some performers likely to be part of the company’s future, and some not, it proved to be a more pedestrian experience than one would have hoped for.

The production was certainly not the type of wild-eyed approach to a Verdi opera that one would have expected from Rosenberg, but the idea of used sets of a traditional production from D.C. or Miami is unlikely to have been what Rosenberg had in mind for opening night Fall, 2006.

But having seen — in May at the Washington National Opera — the solid production that Jean-Pierre Ponnelle created in 1973 of Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri”, appearing as fresh as if it were brand new, why would the S. F. Opera have used only the 1977 Conklin “Ballo” costumes and not the Conklin “Ballo” sets?

Those sets seemed in past outings as substantial as the Ponnelle productions (and as did our 1976 Ponnelle productions of Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” which were performed here during the Rosenberg years).  Do the Conklin “Ballo” sets no longer exist?  If not, what happened to them?