The nation’s official opera company has opened its new season under a cloud. Budget problems have reduced 2010-2011’s offerings to just five productions, down from the usual seven or eight, leaving Washingtonians with the smallest repertoire in nearly two decades. After announcing staff cuts in the recent past, the company has confirmed rumors that artistic director Placido Domingo, who has led Washington National since 1996, will step down at the end of the current season. Negotiations are reportedly underway to merge the beleaguered opera with the management of its only venue, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Starting the ill starred season with James Robinson’s production of Verdi’s tale of illicit love and anti-monarchical conspiracy does little to alleviate the sense of woe. Robinson’s effort last season with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville was a happy enough jaunt into the world of stagecraft, but his Ballo leaves much to be desired. Adopting the opera’s proper Swedish setting, Allen Moyer’s sets are dominated by a Nordic bleakness. Gustavo’s first act throne room resembles a Quaker meeting house with undecorated walls and two rows of plain chairs. The second act, set by the gallows outside Stockholm in the original stage directions, is here an inexplicably disused hall with no walls and scattered broken chandeliers. Only the Ulrica scene seemed to match something one would recognize, but why spoil the effort by having her throat slashed at the end of her all too accurate predictions and Gustavo’s enlightened (the historic Gustav III had pretensions to the “enlightened” part of “enlightened despotism”) pardon of her? James Shuette’s costumes, at least, seemed right.
Tenor Salvatore Licitra may be the closest thing we have to an Italian superstar, and his casting as Gustavo was entirely right. His small stature was not helped by the scale of the production, but his vocal tones were clarion and he delivered the doomed king’s music with a beauty rarely heard even in middle Verdi pieces today. Sadly his performance was diminished by his fellow principles. The young soprano Tamara Wilson shows some promise, but lacked the pyrotechnics for a successful Amelia. The revelation scene in Act II was downright boring. I wondered why anyone would take any sort of risk for her charms, let alone the fatal one Gustavo takes in seducing (at least with words) his best friend’s wife. Luca Salsi’s Renato fell flat. His singing lacked the passion one would expect from a cuckolded husband bent on murderous revenge. His dramatic interpretation was stiff. Elena Manistina’s Ulrica added a fine mezzo to the cast, but alas the character’s appearance in Act I was too short to save a lackluster performance. Basses Kenneth Kellogg and Julien Robbins were menacing conspirators. Daniele Callegari is new to Washington’s podium but led an undistinguished orchestral effort.