The winking tenor

A semicomic opera gets a semibalanced treatment.


Seattle Opera Seattle Center, Mercer Arts Arena, 389-7676, $35-$107 7:30 p.m. Fri., May 10, Sat., May 11, Wed., May 15, Fri., May 17, Sat., May 18

FIFTY-THREE YEARS and an entire career separate Verdi’s two comic operas, Un Giorno di Regno (his second work) and Falstaff (his last). But why? Perhaps because Un Giorno was a failure; the emotional scars must have run deep in the novice composer to keep him away from the genre for five decades. Yet there are many aspects of 1859’s Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), composed in the middle of his career, that prove that Verdi, once he reached artistic maturity, could have turned out a brilliant comic opera anytime he cared to.

Except for La Traviata with its party scenes, none of his other tragedies are so lightened by comic relief. There’s a very thin line separating the sort of irony that intensifies a tragic climax and the sort that brings a wry chuckle, and Un Ballo dances back and forth across this line. The plot’s based on a true story: King Gustavus of Sweden is in love with Amelia, the wife of his best friend and secretary, Anckarstr�who in revenge falls in with the king’s political enemies. There are genuinely funny moments in the fortune-telling scene, where Gustavus’ fate is foretold (Gustavus responds to warnings about these conspiracies with an insouciance that masks a real courage), and later after Amelia’s infidelity is revealed. Then there’s Gustavus’ page Oscar (sung brightly by Terri Richter), a saucy character right out of opera buffa.

Unfortunately the light/dark interplay is sometimes out of balance in Seattle Opera’s current production, which is gripping as melodrama but a little labored in the lighter moments. As Anckarstr�Gordon Hawkins sings with a warm, woolly baritone that expresses anger magnificently (his opening scenes in Act III, confronting Amelia, are powerful) but leaves the earlier scenes, where he’s still a sympathetic character, a bit earthbound. Carol Vaness as Amelia presents a similar case: She has a full, opulent soprano with a lush vibrato, a fine vehicle for throbbing emotion but less sure in the matters of clarity of pitch and flowing elegance of line.

An SO favorite for several seasons, Vinson Cole made a superb Gustavus. He sang, as he always does, with a silken ease, which in this case was exactly right for the part, wonderfully capable of the shadings of pathos and lightness that the character requires. So suave is his tone and his way with a phrase that you almost don’t notice the sheer projecting power of his hall-filling voice. There’s not much scope for laughs in the tenors’ standard repertory—they’re stuck playing heroes, while baritones and basses get all the good character parts—so Un Ballo is a rare and welcome chance for Cole to show off his flair for light comedy.