Review: Louisiana Locale, Impressive Casting for Paul Groves’ First “Ballo” – New Orleans Opera, November 18, 2011

The New Orleans Opera, performing in the spacious Mahalia Jackson Theater, presented Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera”, utilizing G. Alan Ruznak’s sets that place the opera in mid-19th century New Orleans. The performance (the first of two) was a vehicle for native son Paul Groves’ role debut in the lead tenor part of Riccardo.

Thoughts on the Groves Riccardoosca

Groves has been associated particularly with baroque opera and Mozart (see Master of the Lyric Voice – An Interview with Paul Groves). Riccardo is usually regarded as one of the threshold roles between the lyric and spinto operatic vocal categories.

In “Ballo” the soprano and baritone each have powerfully dramatic scenes, but the tenor is center of attention throughout much of the opera, with a mix of arias (including the Barcarolle Di tu se fedele of the second scene and the penultimate scene’s Ma se m’e forza perderti), and various ensembles.  Groves demonstrated a muscular lyric voice, with all the necessary power  to hold the line in the choral ensembles, duets, trios, quartets and quintets that Verdi has assigned Riccardo.

Groves sang both solo arias and ensembles with a vocal brilliance, without any sign of forcing the large lyric sound for which he is known. In fact, Groves who brings vocal heft to the tenor roles in Mozart, brought a Mozartean grace to the complexities of this Verdian tenor role.

Riccardo is a role in which I’ve attended performances by many of the last half century’s important lyric and spinto tenors, including Giacomo Aragall, Carlo Bergonzi, Jose Carreras, Sandor Konya, Frank Lopardo, Ermanno Mauro, Luciano Pavarotti, Ragnar Ulfung, Ramon Vargas and Giuseppe Zampieri. I found Groves’ conception of the role and approach to singing it worthy of being included in a list of such esteemed tenors.

[Below: Amelia (Chiara Taigi, left) warns Riccardo (Paul Groves, second from left) of the plot to assassinate him at that evening’s Mardi Gras ball; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the New Orleans Opera.]

The Other Vocal Performances

Italian soprano Chiara Taigi proved to be an effective Amelia, a married woman with whom Riccardo has an unrequited love. Chiara has an expressive voice of lyric spinto weight. She performed the taxing  aria Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa (in this production set in a New Orleans Cemetery with the high above ground vaults) with distinction.

In the soulful Morro, ma prima in grazia Taigi was able to convey the inner turmoil of a wife and mother, who suddenly has found herself in a lethal situation. As a character who never has a moment of happiness throughout the opera, Stage Director Matthew Lata often had Taigi on the floor or elsewhere in a state of constant despondency.

The Renato was Gordon Hawkins, who, in time for the simultaneous bicentennials of opera composers Wagner and Verdi, has amassed an impressive repertoire of baritone roles from both composers. With his large powerful voice that serves both his Wagnerian heldenbariton and Verdian high baritone assignments, he was a strong presence as Riccardo’s best friend and assassin, costumed in an antebellum officer’s uniform. Both of his big arias were nicely done, with the baritone showpiece Eri tu one of the night’s highlights.

[Below: Renato (Gordon Hawkins, right) threatens the life of his wife Amelia (Chiara Taigi, left); edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the New Orleans Opera.]

Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove as the sorceress Ulrica was yet another big voice, with deep power below the staff, projecting a menacing woman, whom one could believe really communicates with the forces of darkness.

[Below: Ulrica (Jill Grove) evokes her mysterious powers; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the New Orleans Opera.]

Completing the quintet of major characters is Angela Mannino, the Oscar. An alumnus of the Chicago Lyric’s Ryan Center, she displayed a leggiero voice that added a gleaming sound to the ensembles in which she appears. The comprimario roles were performed by Patrick Blackwell (Tom), Gustav Andreassen (Sam), Patrick Jacobs (Silvano), John Giraud (the Judge) and Jody Hinkley (Amelia’s Servant).

Choosing the Location where “Ballo” Makes Sense

“Ballo in Maschera” productions are usually set in Stockholm, the location originally preferred by Verdi, or Boston, the location Verdi agreed to to meet the objections of mid-19th century Habsburg Dynasty censors. Rather than placing the opera in Sweden or New England, the New Orleans Opera chose to locate the “Ballo” action in New Orleans. Changing the venue to Louisiana, rather than creating distractions from the intended story line, actually makes elements of the original story more plausible.

I suspect that Verdi, who had a rather muddled idea of the cultural geography of America, would have seen that the order of events in his opera fit nicely into the environment of the bayous of the Lower Mississippi. A judicial functionary rails about the goings on in the fortune teller Ulrica’s place of business. The page boy Oscar reveals he knows first hand all about her performances. Riccardo impulsively suggests his court disguise themselves and show up at Ulrica’s. Ulrica sends Amelia to one of the New Orleans cemeteries with their above ground crypts to search for a particular herb. The  masked ball is part of Mardi Gras, and is an annual event that the all of the community power structure and their families are expected to attend. Everything hangs together!

Choose whatever decade in the past couple of centuries  you wish to place the story “Ballo” in  Louisiana, with Riccardo as a powerful chief executive at some long ago time,  and it works. Ulrica can do whatever sorcery, even voodo0, that she wishes, Oscar can be as flamboyant as he pleases, and a masked ball will work at any time at all, especially if it is a Mardi Gras just before Lent.

One could imagine other cities in the American Southeast, such as Charleston, South Carolina or Savannah, Georgia, where the “Ballo” story might be situated as well, but I wouldn’t expect the New Orleans Opera to move the story to Savannah.

In fact, there was immediate bonding between the production and the audience. As the orchestra, under Conductor Robert Lyall, played the pizzicato notes that open the opera, onto the scrim was projected an image of a fleur de lys, the symbol of the Bourbon dynasty that once ruled New Orleans. Both the dynasty’s name and its mark have been appropriated by the community. Since the fleur de lys is now the symbol of the National Football League champions, the New Orleans Saints, the audience broke out cheering over Verdi’s music.

In reviews of other “Ballo” performances elsewhere, I have been particularly critical of unusual productions (see Vargas, Podles Brilliant in Puzzle Box “Ballo”: Houston – November 2, 2007 or Power Verdi: Chanev, Marambio, Ataneli in Deutsche Oper Berlin “Ballo” – April 25, 2009)  or of stage directors who intrude upon otherwise acceptable physical productions with unwarranted stage business (see Missing “That 70’s Show”: S. F. “Ballo” — September 17, 2006). For stage direction that I believe passed muster, see my comments of Renata Scotto’s staging in 21st Century Verdi: Radvanovsky Leads World Class Lyric Opera “Ballo” Cast – Chicago, November 15, 2010.)

Fortunately, Matthew Lata’s direction was a model of how the opera should be staged. Every character’s motivation was understandable, and what they did made sense. This is a production of which the New Orleans Opera and for which Paul Groves and his colleagues should be proud.


For another review of an opera with sets from the New Orleans Opera by G. Alan Rusnak, see: Sarah Coburn’s Ravishing Tulsa Opera Lakme – February 29, 2008.