Regional Reviews: Florida - Southern
A Masked Ball
An operatic classic of betrayal, the storyline is easy to follow. What a top-drawer production needs is a cadre of talented singers who can act and a director who can bring out the best in their performances, and know how to "work" a chorus on a stage.
At best, the production is uneven. We have our leading lady Tamara Wilson, who truly has a voice for the ages. A young woman, one could wish for her acting, which is non-existent, to ascend to her vocal heights. Where is the director? Rafael Davila sings the king Gustavo. After a rough start, he proves vocally exciting right up until Gustavo dies. Again, Mr. Davila could use a directorial hand. His king is without regality, authority or sophistication, but his singing makes up for it. In the pants role of Oscar, a role "owned" by the late Roberta Peters throughout her career, Elena Galvan dispenses her stratospheric song lines effortlessly. She obviously was directed to run all over the place, so she could appear more boyish, and for some inexplicable reason, to do a cartwheel during one of her arias as well as at her curtain call. Why? I guess because she can. The cartwheels should be cut. Immediately!
The true stars of the evening are two singers in secondary roles. Count Anckarström is the cuckolded husband of our leading lady. Todd Thomas, with a beautiful, booming baritone, and an excellent understanding of both his character as well as what he is singing, is the male standout. As for the distaff side, I have saved the best for last. The role of Ulrica is a definitive scene-stealer. Marian Anderson made her Met debut in the role and I recall the extraordinary Dolora Zajick stealing the performances each time I saw her. FGO has a true star in Dana Beth Miller. Unusually young for the "hag" role, she is only on for one scene, and the impression she makes is palpable. A beautiful woman, she has a mezzo that thrills from her very first note. In addition, she consistently turns in the best acting of the evening. I understand that Ms. Miller is off to Europe for a Ring cycle and her trajectory seems to be securely in place. Brava!
As for Marco Pelle, our director, I am at a complete loss. Ulrica sings quite a bit of her music from way too far upstage. Why? She is the focal point and should be allowed total stage freedom. Why do the choristers have to "dance" a dosey-doe and mime playing instruments? There is nothing wrong with stillness if the people onstage are focused and in the moment. As for the crowd scenes, they are grouped together with an empty upstage area, so it looks like a multitude of few. On one of Ms. Wilson's entrances she is totally blocked by a multitude of crypts and mausoleums that are aligned perfectly. By angling them, the audience would actually be able to see her. Many more directorial mishaps could be mentioned, but, that's enough.
Ramon Tebar conducts the orchestra with brio. I only wish he had paid more attention cueing his singers. There are too many times, especially in the group arias, where there is a disconnect between the singing and the orchestra. That said, the musicians sound glorious while playing this iconic score.
Opera today is not about "just" the singing. To hold an audience's interest as well as to create new audiences, productions have to be able to charm the ear as well as engross the audience, emotionally. That is where acting comes in.
Florida Grand Opera is a terrific company that consistently draws a younger demographic to its performances. That is encouraging. Many operatic stories are a tad, well, "silly." An audience needs to get involved in the character's emotions. I, for one, look forward to next season. Of the four operas they will offer, two are directorial dreams: Salome and Orfeo. I hope that FGO will engage directors who have a sensitivity to the singer's acting needs.
A Masked Ball plays May 2, 5 and 6 at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, Fl. On May 11 and 13, it moves to The Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Ft. Lauderdale, 201 SW 5 Ave. Tickets may be purchased at fgo.org or by calling FGO directly at 305-949-6722