While enjoying Madison Opera perform Verdi's Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball) at Overture Hall Friday evening, it struck me that perhaps the smaller, local companies are keeping opera honest. Unlike the major, big-city companies, smaller ones cannot afford the whiz-bang new directors who impose quirky "concepts" on their productions and in turn do such damage to the art form.
This "Masked Ball" was beautifully and, above all, idiomatically done. Kristine McIntyre's stage direction was superbly smooth, finely detailed and completely appropriate. Also to be praised are the ideally designed sets of R. Keith Brumley (courtesy of Kansas City Lyric Opera) and the lavish costumes from the Malabar service. Visually, this was an absolutely stunning production few larger companies could manage to better.
This saga of frustrated love, jealousy, conspiracy and revenge -- all the necessary operatic elements, plus a touch of the spooky -- requires a very accomplished cast, confident in Verdi style. And that is what it received. In her Madison debut, Alexandra LoBianco proved herself a true Verdi soprano, with a powerhouse voice and passionate dramatic projection. She portrayed Amelia, the conflicted beloved of the king.
A cherished product of the UW, Caitlin Cisler, provided a perfect foil as the page Oscar, one of Verdi's few high-coloratura soprano roles. Her beautifully piping voice was exceeded only by her delightfully spirited acting -- a performance to be cherished. The rich-voiced contralto Jeniece Golbourne provided further contrast, bringing a touch of Voodoo to her characterization of the sorceress and fortuneteller Ulrica.
The strong-voiced Hyung Yun returned to Madison as Amelia's husband, Anckarström. He delivered the character's big Act III aria with compelling emotion. The lesser roles were well cast, but if there seems to be a weak element, it is tenor William Joyner as King Gustav III. His murder is the opera's climax. His voice is clear if not opulent, but perhaps he was having a bad night on Friday. By the end of Act II, he showed serious signs of strain, and in Act III, his highest notes were virtually nonexistent. This was disappointing after his strong showing in Kepler last season.
The chorus, 43 strong, sounded and looked splendid, and under John DeMain's firm control, the orchestra poured out full-blooded Verdian color and expression.
This production is a real winner in launching the Madison Opera's 2012-13 season. It will be performed again this Sunday, Oct. 28, at 2:30 p.m.