Review: 21st Century Verdi – Radvanovsky Leads World Class “Ballo” Cast – Lyric Opera Chicago, November 15, 2010

In the past two months, I have reported on world class performances of Verdi’s “Aida” at the San Francisco Opera (see Brilliant Cast, Colorful Production, Luisotti’s Masterful Conducting Enliven San Francisco “Aida” – September 19, 2010) and Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London (see 21st Century Verdi: Hvorostovsky, Ciofi, Kim, Aceto in McVicar’s Illuminating “Rigoletto” – ROH Covent Garden, October 11, 2010) in the context of a controversy over whether Verdi performances of a generation ago were superior to those of our present day.

I suspect some of those that argue the quality of Verdi’s singing has declined may be making their judgment on the basis of the stereo studio recordings of the 1960s and 1970s. I am not prepared to refute the argument that the previous generation was the Golden Age of Opera Recordings. But as a person who has attended live opera performances regularly since my early teens, I don’t agree with the premise that Verdian opera singing is in decline.

As the latest example that I believe meets any reasonable criteria for a world class opera performance, I offer this report on the Lyric Opera’s “Ballo in Maschera” starring Frank Lopardo (Gustavo), Sondra Radvanovsky (Amelia), Mark Delavan (Renato), Kathleen Kim (Oscar) and Stephanie Blythe (Ulrica). Conducted by Asher Fisch and directed by a great Verdian of the “previous” generation, Renata Scotto, the production was from the San Francisco Opera.

[Below: Gustavo (Frank Lopardo) is affected by a name on his guest list; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera, Chicago.]

There are several notable strengths and virtually no weaknesses in the Lyric “Ballo” lineup. In time, possibly the not too distant future, Sondra Radvanovsky, the Amelia, will be respected as one of the greatest Verdian sopranos in history. Her voice is rich throughout its range, exhibiting a beautiful vocal technique. Like so many of colleagues of the present day, she is an intelligent actress, always absorbing the audience’s attention.

The baritone who sings the role of Amelia’s husband, Renato, Mark Delavan, in his role debut, demonstrated the artistry of a singer who has mastered the musicality and dramatic force of the Wotan roles in Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”. Delavan, whom I regard as one of the contemporary generation’s proponents of  bel canto Wagnerian singing, shows that the skills one needs to sing Wagner beautifully work wondrously for Verdi also. He creates a vivid impression of  Renato, a tortured soul whom marital suspicion and despair turns into an assassin.

[Below: Gustavo (Frank Lopardo, left) is skeptical of the prophetic powers of Ulrica (Stephanie Blythe, right); edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera, Chicago.]

Frank Lopardo’s lyric voice has matured into a vibrant instrument, with a bright sound in the upper part of his range. Stephanie Blythe’s mezzo voice has the power even in the contralto notes of this role and leaves a vivid impression both in her solo aria and in the several ensembles in which this voice has a dominant part. Kathleen Kim, with her lustrous coloratura, charmed the audience as a sprightly Oscar.

[Below: the populace enters Ulrica’s dwellings; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera, Chicag0.]

The opera’s program credits the beautiful costumes to John Conklin, but gives no hint as to whom designed the sets. The costumes were created for a 1977 “Ballo” production starring Jose Carreras and Katia Ricciarelli, but the sets for the lavish production of which they were part were destroyed (I believe unwisely). Those missing sets were replaced by sets from a different production by Zack Brown.  (For those who are curious about the history of the sets seen in Chicago, which I concede do match the traditional costumes, refer to my previous review, Missing “That 70’s Show”: S. F. “Ballo” — September 17, 2006.)

[Below: the conspirators gain a new recruit when the wife of the king’s trusted advisor is discovered in a compromising situation; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera, Chicago.]

Although the Lyric “Ballo” utilizes the marriage of sets and costumes from older productions that the San Francisco Opera patched together in 2006, there is a significant improvement in Chicago over the production in San Francisco – the stage direction of Renata Scotto. San Francisco’s stage director added fussy details and boorish behavior that one cannot imagine would have been countenanced in the court of an “enlightened despot”, nor the home of his minister, nor even by the noblemen-conspirators.

At no time does Scotto ask her artists to behave in ways that make no sense for the characters or their context. Yes, Oscar taunts the primo giudice, but not in any way that crosses a line that would require Gustavo’s intercession. (Of course, what is not boorish can still be annoying. Certainly, the conspirators would have had no interest in keeping Oscar around after a successful coup.)

[Below: Amelia (Sondra Radvanovsky) pleads with her husband Renato (Mark Delavan) to grant her permission to say goodbye to their son; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera, Chicago.]

“Ballo” seems to be fair game for concept directors who wish to impose their own ideas on how the story should be presented.  Since there exist charges that the historical Gustav III had some odd sexual proclivities, a cottage industry sprang up, beginning a half century ago, for productions that present him as gay, sexually promiscuous and the like. (For my discussion of that subject, see: Power Verdi: Chanev, Marambio, Ataneli in Deutsche Oper Berlin “Ballo” – April 25, 2009.)

The problem with all the aberrant Gustavo “Ballo” productions is that none of them, neither from the standpoint of narrative nor psychological insight, make any sense. Nor, for that matter, does a previous Lyric Opera production (that I saw in Houston) that tries to make the opera into a fairy tale crunched onto a unit set (Vargas, Podles Brilliant in Puzzle Box “Ballo”: Houston – November 2, 2007.)

[Below: the beginning of the masked ball; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera, Chicago.]

There are many opera productions with non-traditional approaches to the story-lines, that I have defended as providing insight and “connection” with contemporary audiences. I am not yet convinced that “Ballo” is an opera that needs or works well with unconventional staging. It is a special joy to see it sung well and played straight. The principal cast and stage director deserve special praise.

In the major comprimario roles are Sam Handley (Tommaso, the Count Horn), Craig Irvin (Samuele, the Count Ribbing) and Paul La Rosa (Christian).

[Below: the dying King Gustavo (Frank Lopardo) is comforted by Amelia (Sondra Radvanovsky) and Oscar (Kathleen Kim); edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera, Chicago.]

In advocating for the present day cast at Lyric Opera for Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera”, I will cite some of the singers whose live performances have impressed me during the period from 1961 through 2009, and who give me a basis of comparison.

The Riccardos (Gustavos) on my lists of “favorites” I have seen includes Giacomo Aragall, Carlo Bergonzi, Jose Carreras, Sandor Konya, Ermanno Mauro and the 36 year old Luciano Pavarotti.The Amelias include Martina Arroyo, Gre Browenstijn, Montserrat Caballe, Leontyne Price, Katia Ricciarelli and Deborah Voigt.

The Ulricas include Fiorenza Cossotto and Ewa Podles; the Oscars Kathleen Battle, Helen Donath, Reri Grist and Graziella Scuitti; and the Renatos Lado Ataneli and Ettore Bastianini. I could prepare an even more extensive list, but I offer these names as proof that I am not a “Ballo” newbie.

I am sufficiently impressed by this “Ballo” production to recommend it highly, even if one has to travel some distance to see it. It’s worth the special effort.

For my other reviews of Radvanovsky (and Blythe) singing Verdi, see:

Licitra, Radvanovsky Gleam in Lyric Opera’s Glorious New “Ernani”: Chicago, November 5, 2009, and

Lyrical Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera September 11, 2009, and

Verdi’s New Champion: Nicola Luisotti’s Transformative “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera, October 4, 2009.

For other reviews of Radvanovsky performances, see: Friedkin’s Miraculous, Radvanovsky’s Revelatory L.A. “Suor Angelica” – September 6, 2008, and

The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Radvanovsky, Grigolo in Pascoe’s WNO “Lucrezia Borgia” – November 17, 2008.