Hampson and Di Giacomo lift SFO’s atmospheric “Un Ballo”

October 07, 2014
By Steven Winn
Julianna Di Giacomo and Ramon Vargas in Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera" at San Francisco Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

Julianna Di Giacomo and Ramon Vargas in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” at San Francisco Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

One day after San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley announced that he would indeed retire as planned after the 2015-16 season, the company he has led for the past eight years got back to work with a revival of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera.

In more ways than one, the production could be read as a gloss on the outgoing director’s tenure.  From the first-rank singers to the splendid orchestral playing under the baton of music director Nicola Luisotti, a transformative Gockley hire, the musical values were uppermost.  And it wasn’t just the familiar names, led by baritone Thomas Hampson, mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick and soprano Heidi Stober, who delivered the goods.  A lustrous and moving San Francisco Opera debut by soprano Julianna Di Giacomo demonstrated once again what a fine eye and ear Gockley has for new talent.  The singer rose through the San Francisco Opera ranks as a Merola Opera Program singer.

While there’s certainly no dishonor in mounting revivals, especially one as solidly designed and directed (by Jose Maria Condemi) as this one from 2006, returning productions of well-known works were a more frequent feature of the Gockley regime than he would have liked.   With refreshing frankness over the years, he made no secret of financial struggles in the wake of the 2008 recession that forced retrenchment, curtailed seasons and some conservative choices.

But no one was thinking about spread-sheets and bottom lines as Luisotti led the orchestra through a pensive and percolating account of the eventful Ballo overture Saturday night.  When the curtain rose on a stage filled with designer John Conklin’s elaborate 18th century court costumes, complete with plenty of brocade and powdered wigs, you could feel the audience settling in for a well upholstered old-school spectacle.  The uncredited sets, first built for Washington Opera, were like 3-D architectural drawings of niches and stairways and balconies, repeatedly enhanced by Gary Marder’s atmospheric lighting.

Verdi never lets an audience settle for very long.  Almost right away, in one of the lucid ensembles that came off generally well on opening night, news of a plot against King Gustavus of Sweden (tenor Ramón Vargas) was telegraphed by a clutch of downstage conspirators led by two sinister figures.  Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn and bass Scott Conner, both of them mustering ink-dark voices and a paranoid flinchiness, made the villains both visceral and faintly comic.

Meanwhile the king, with an adulterous flirtation in mind, was planning a masked ball with his page Oscar (the glittering Stober, singing with bell-pure vibrancy in a trousers role).   The king’s trusted adviser Count Anckarström (a diplomatic Hampson, in soothingly restrained voice at first) was on hand to try to navigate it all and calm the waters.

Hampson’s own still waters would soon be swept away in a magnificently played torrent of emotion.   His transition from becalmed counselor to betrayed husband and friend to anguished murderer was a musical and theatrical marvel, reason enough and then some to attend the production.  Performances as deeply felt and thoroughly convincing as this one don’t come along very often.   Note that Hampson will be replaced October 7 and 22 by Brian Mulligan.

Zajick, the powerful mezzo with a long San Francisco history, had her beguiling showcase in the second scene.  As the fortune teller Madame Arvidson, she conjured up her hocus pocus over a bucket spilling stage fog.  Waving her arms and brandishing her sultry voice like another tool of the trade, Zajick was both intimidating and amusing as a fraud who has to work hard to sell her dubious goods.   Zajick’s own musical offerings weren’t always ideal, with some uneasy register shifts.  But when the poorly disguised king stepped forward to have his palm read, her voice took on an icy clarity and alarm, both in her ringing high notes and eerily strong low ones, as she foretold his death.

Vargas, who made his San Francisco Opera debut as the king 15 years ago, had a deft comic moment when he pretended to faint at the prediction of his demise.  Unfortunately it was one of the highlights of a poor outing.  With a voice that sounded stretched and thin, the tenor lacked lyrical heft, struggled for notes at the upper reaches and left most of the role’s dramatic contours unexplored.  He had no chemistry with Di Giacomo’s vibrant Amelia, and his third act solo, in which the king both magnanimously and pragmatically renounces his love, was perfunctory and pallid.

Once Vargas had departed from his moonlit second-act tryst with Di Giacomo, who was transporting in her lovelorn solo, Hampson took over.  When Amelia was unmasked as the king’s apparent lover, Hampson’s quiet fury as a cuckolded husband was terrifying as he led his wife brusquely offstage.  The fury erupted in the third act, as he sentenced her to death, went lethally still as she plead her case and then set the murder plot in motion.

The steel in Hampson’s voice was unbendable, heartbreaking offset by Di Giacomo’s aching pain.  The young soprano produced an uncanny mix of power and self-effacement in Amelia, all powered by a stream of burnished tone and astonishing breath control.

The masked ball itself, despite some adroit choreography by Lawrence Pech that was by turns playful, taunting  and austere, was something of a foregone conclusion.  Vargas generated little heat in his farewell duet with Di Giacomo and the king’s subsequent death scene.  Hampson, stricken with remorse after he fired the fatal shot, only grew in tragic stature as the inevitable action played out.  In the end, this Ballo became his, the story of Count Anckarström’s fatefully curdled love and friendship.

Un Ballo in Maschera continues through October 22.  sfopera.com; 415-864-3330.

One Response to “Hampson and Di Giacomo lift SFO’s atmospheric “Un Ballo””

  1. Posted Oct 25, 2014 at 2:49 pm by Charles Richards

    At the Sunday October 19 matinee, I thought Vargas rose to the occasion of the last act and held nothing back. His voice seemed to recapture its past casual, easy bloom and he imbued the music with truth and feeling. Like Hampson, he brought me to tears.

    Hampson elevated the whole last act. He colored his words and notes with searing emotional sincerity. It was a deeply moving portrayal and I completely forgot how hot and stuffy the auditorium had felt up to that point. I left grateful to have heard them both.