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OPERA REVIEW : Music Center Unmasks 'Ballo'--Twice : It was old-fashioned, uneven business as usual, but Placido Domingo made the most of it on the second night--even with a cold.

September 13, 1993|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Opera, opera everywhere. . . .

This is a time of delirious excess for devotees of the most irrational of arts. Opera Pacific has opened its doors with an adventurous staging of good old Gounod's "Faust" (see Daniel Cariaga's report on F5). The Met's most recent exhumation of "Falstaff" looms on PBS (Chris Pasles covers it on F11). Meanwhile, the Music Center Opera, drafting two vastly dissimilar sets of principals, is having its ways with Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera."

Who says Southern California is the wasteland of the lyric muse?

Following the extravagantly overproduced, oddly undersung, newfangled "Boheme" that inaugurated its season, the Music Center returned with a passion to thrifty, old-fashioned, lend-lease conventions. For "Ballo," Peter Hemmings & Co. borrowed some pretty, and now pretty bedraggled, decors designed by Jurgen Rose for Covent Garden in London 18 years ago.

The painterly, flimsy-canvas sets still look reasonably atmospheric, and they define both moods and locales neatly enough. They traveled a long way, however, to provide neutral backgrounds, and their tattered condition wasn't exactly masked by the local lighting wizards. (At the first performance, the soothsayer's rustic, let's-pretend-realistic hut was illuminated by a risible, all-too visible bank of spotlights; mercifully, the Brechtian anachronism disappeared at the second performance.)

The original stage director back in 1975 was Otto Schenk, who remained uncredited in the Los Angeles program. His duties were inherited here by Stephen Lawless, who served as a sensitive, resourceful traffic cop within the ultra-conventional milieu.

The milieu, incidentally, claimed to respect the composer's original plan to place the action in the Stockholm of 1792, rather than the quaintly neutral never-never land called Boston preferred by 19th-Century censors. The royal hero, therefore, was named Gustavo rather than Riccardo, and Ulrica became a Gypsy hag known as Mme. Arvidson. One really couldn't tell the difference without a program, or a supertitle.

When all was said and sung, this wasn't a "Ballo" that asked anyone to take the drama very seriously. For better or worse, the music was the thing.

As the fickle fates would have it, the music was better on Saturday, worse on Friday.

Don't blame the conductor. Richard Buckley, who stirred the air so ineffectually last May in "Lucia," is known to exert a rather erratic force in the pit. For "Ballo," however, he did everything possible to reinforce the drama and sustain momentum against the odds, to keep the line taut and the articulation crisp. He inspired alert responses from a rather scrawny-sounding L.A. Chamber Orchestra, and always accompanied the singers sympathetically--slowing down as necessary for an indulgent diva, speeding up for a troubled tenor.

*

The disastrously troubled tenor on opening night was Vyacheslav Polozov, a pensive, baby-faced Ukrainian who was attempting the spinto duties of Gustavo for the first time. He has sung with appealing fervor and a modicum of finesse on happier occasions elsewhere. Here his good intentions were defeated by dry, raspy tone that turned consistently, painfully sharp under pressure.

The tenor in distress on Saturday was none other than Placido Domingo. This chronic overachiever, who is conducting "Boheme" and singing "Ballo" virtually on alternate days, was suffering from a cold. Hemmings came before the curtain after the first intermission to beg the audience's indulgence on the tenorissimo's behalf.

The problems were obvious to anyone with keen eyes and ears. Domingo kept pinching the bridge of his nose between amorous outbursts. He avoided the high climaxes of the barcarolle and love duet. He cheated the ecstatic fervor of "Si, rivederti, Amelia."

And it hardly mattered at all.

Domingo sang--and acted--with such easy authority, such ringing amplitude and such focused intensity that the passing blemishes seemed almost irrelevant. He exuded charm, heroic ardor and courtly grace. Poetic art, abetted by intelligence and technique, triumphed over prosaic adversity.

The dual divas represented a telling study in opposites.

Ealynn Voss, Amelia in the first cast, looked statuesque, confined her acting to a few stately poses and, apart from an occasional edgy phrase, sang like a zonking bel-canto paragon. The grand, arching line holds no terrors for her, and she proved that she is willing and able to file the huge, quasi-Wagnerian sound at her command down to a shimmering whisper. This is a talent to be cherished, and nurtured carefully.

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