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Saturday, 07 July 2012 17:01

Union Avenue Opera's 'Masked Ball': great singers who could use Hamlet's advice

Written by Chuck Lavazzi

The Details

“Un Ballo in Maschera” (“A Masked Ball”) is classic Verdi, with star-crossed lovers, vendettas, political intrigue, a tragedy of bad timing in which nobody lives happily ever after, and even a sorceress who makes sadly accurate predictions of doom.

The Union Avenue Opera production is beautifully sung, with a cast of impressive voices headed by the ringing dramatic soprano of Courtney Mills as Amelia. Acting, unfortunately, is mostly hammy. Still, you don't see “Un Ballo” done that often, and the ensembles will knock your knee breeches off.

Based on the play “Gustav III” by Eugene Scribe, “Un Ballo” takes the historically factual 1792 assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden at a masked ball and grafts on a tragic romantic subplot, omniscient seer, and other stapes of 19th century tragedy. Antonio Somma’s original libretto retained the play’s historic setting but at the last minute right-wing censors, unnerved by a recent assassination attempt on Napoleon III by a trio of Italians, demanded that the action be removed to Colonial Boston.

If you think the clash between that political and cultural milieu and the tropes typical of Romantic Italian opera might lead to moments of unintentional absurdity, you’d be dead on, which is probably why many recent productions have moved everything back to Sweden. Union Avenue sticks with Boston but Teresa Doggett’s costumes clearly make this an alternate-universe Boston, with a look somewhere between Colonial and contemporary. For me, that made the required suspension of disbelief somewhat easier.

Even more to the point, though, the uniformly strong vocal performances of Union Avenue’s singers render incredulity issues raised by the setting and some aspects of the casting less problematic than they might be. These are some terrific singers.

Aside from the aforementioned Ms. Mills, beautiful sounds routinely issue from the head and chest of tenor Emanuel-Cristian Caraman as the doomed Governor Riccardo; baritone Andrew Cummings as his secretary Renato, who turns assassin when he discovers his wife Amelia an in apparently late-night clinch with Riccardo; and soprano Rachel Holzhausen, in the mostly comic coloratura “pants” role of the page Oscar. Contralto Denise Knowlton sounds just as impressive as the sorceress Ulrica, as do basses Todd von Felker and David Dillard as conspirators Sam and Tom. All of Verdi’s conspirators, in fact, are low voices—a nice contrast with the more tenor-heavy sound of Riccardo’s partisans. The members of the chorus, as is usually the case at Union Avenue, combine admirable power with clarity.

On the acting side of the ledger, unfortunately, we have mostly debits. In his famous “advice to the players” monolog, Hamlet laments a number of bad acting practices, including performers who “saw the air too much” with their hands and “tear a passion to tatters” with exaggeration. There’s a fair amount of that here—so much, in fact, that I’m inclined to blame director Mark James Meier more than the performers. Ms. Mills provides a most believable characterization, to my eyes, as does Ms. Holzhausen, even if her charmingly choreographed and irresistible Oscar seems to have been dropped in from an operetta or contemporary musical. For the most part, though, I found that I had to set my theatre critic hat aside and simply let the fine singing carry the evening.

Under Scott Schoonover’s expert direction, the orchestra produced sounds with an appropriately Verdian punch, thanks in part to solid work by the brasses. When they combine with the full vocal ensemble in numbers like the Act I finale, the effect is spectacular.

“Un Ballo in Maschera” has one more performance tonight (July 7) at 8 at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright. The Union Avenue season closes August 17 through 25 with their most ambitious effort yet—Jonathan Dove’s adaptation for small opera companies of Wagner’s titanic “Das Rheingold”. For more information, you may visit, check out their Facebook page, follow them on Twitter @UAOpera, or call 314-361-2881.

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