Arts & Events

San Francisco Opera Unveils A New Star in UN BALLO IN MASCHERA

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Thursday October 09, 2014 - 11:08:00 PM

In Giuseppe Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, soprano Julianna Di Giacomo made her San Francisco Opera debut on Saturday, October 4, 2014; and a sensational debut it was! Sounding like a young Beverly Sills, Di Giacomo, a Santa Monica native and Merola alumna, has a very bright and focused soprano, which was heard to wonderful effect in the role of Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera. From the moment she came on stage, in Act I’s scene in Ulrica the soothsayer’s den, Di Giacomo thoroughly dominated every scene in which she appeared. Only veteran baritone Thomas Hampson, who sang the role of Count Anckarström, Amelia’s husband and friend of King Gustavus, managed to hold his own vocally with Julianna Di Giacomo. Unfortunately, as King Gustavus, tenor Ramón Vargas sounded thin and lacking in power in a role I heard him perform here in far better voice back in 1999.  

With a libretto by Antonio Somma based on a text by Eugène Scribe, Verdi’s Ballo, which premiered in Rome in 1859, is set in the 18th century court of King Gustavus of Sweden. The plot involves a conspiracy to assassinate the king and is complicated by the fact that King Gustavus has a secret crush on Amelia, the wife of Count Anckarström, his best friend and advisor. When Amelia, who secretly requites the king’s love, albeit chastely, seeks to ease her torment, she goes to Ulrica the sooth-sayer for advice. Ulrica, sung here by mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajic, tells her to go at midnight to a deserted spot outside the city gates where stands a gallows. There she must pick a potent herb to cure her of her secret passion for the king. Gustavus, hidden in disguise, overhears this advice and plans to meet Amelia there and declare his love. Act II in this production (Act III when Ballo is done in five acts instead of three) is in many ways the highlight of the opera. Amelia is first seen alone by the gallows, nervously fretting over her plight as she sings the glorious aria, “Ma dall’ arido stela divulsa,” in which she laments that an evil herb is about to destroy the secret love in her heart. As Amelia, Julianna Di Giacomo sang this aria beautifully, with gorgeous legato. When Gustavus unexpectedly arrives and declares his love, Amelia initially pleads with him to honor her marriage to his loyal friend and advisor Anckarström. Little by little, however, Amelia gives way to her own feelings for Gustavus; and in a long passionate duet, “O qual soave bivido,” they pour out their love for each other. In this duet, Ramón Vargas as Gustavus was simply unable to hold up his end of the singing; and Julianna Di Giacomo’s soprano easily soared over Vargas’s thin tenor.  

Suddenly, a third party arrives on the scene. It is Anckarström, who comes to warn the king of assassins on their way to kill him. There ensues a remarkable trio as Gustavus is torn between saving his own life by fleeing and saving the dignity of Amelia. As Anckarström, richly sung by Thomas Hampson, urges Gustavus to flee, seconded by Amelia, the king hesitates, then agrees to make his escape if Anckarström will swear to escort the veiled lady back to town without asking her identity. The loyal Count agrees, and Gustavus escapes. But the would-be assassins rush in and discover Anckarström with a veiled woman by his side. When the conspirators remove the woman’s veil, they – and Anckarström – discover to their amusement – and his horror – that the woman is Amelia, Anckarström’s own wife.  

In the final act, Anckarström rages against his wife, accusing her of adultery and threatening to kill her. Amelia pleads her innocence of adultery, though she admits her love for Gustavus. Accepting to die, Amelia asks only one thing. In a noble aria, “Morro, ma prima in grazia,” introduced by one of Verdi’s memorable cello solos, Amelia asks only to be allowed to embrace her son and bid him farewell. As Amelia, Julianna Di Giacomo sang this aria with deeply moving emotion, her limpid phrasing conveying Amelia’s heartfelt clarity of moral conviction. Amelia’s request persuades Anckarström to spare his wife. Alone, Anckarström, fervently sung by Thomas Hampson, pours out his rage in the aria “Eri tu,” in which he declares that Gustavus is his true enemy, and he vows to take revenge on the king rather than his wife. He calls in two conspirators, sung by Christian Van Horn and Scott Connor, and together they plot to kill the king. Oscar, the king’s page, delightfully sung by soprano Heidi Stober in a trousers role, arrives with an invitation from the king to a masked ball. The conspirators agree to use this occasion to kill the king.  

At the masked ball, the effervescent page Oscar teases Anckarström by refusing to divulge the king’s costume. Here, as earlier in the opera, Heidi Stober as Oscar nearly stole the show. Vocally, Stober was superb; and her vivacious acting was irresistible. Ultimately, however, Anckarström tricks Oscar into revealing the king’s disguise. Anckarström then shoots the king at point blank range. Gustavus falls, mortally wounded. But he forgives his killer and proclaims the innocence of his beloved Amelia as the opera ends. In this production, discreetly staged by Director Jose Maria Condemi and admirably conducted by Nicola Luisotti, one thing remains abundantly clear: In soprano Julianna Di Giacomo, who has already made a name for herself at the Met and in Vienna and Naples, we have a brilliant homegrown Merola graduate on the brink of international stardom.