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Winds of change: Un ballo in maschera CSO 2022.VI.28 (Lontano lontano)

Updated: Aug 19, 2022

The Windy City's Ballo thrillingly sounded by Muti's CSO & Palumbo's CSC.

Also Matochkina, Mizzi, Salsi, Meli, El-Khoury

Un ballo in maschera


Orchestra Hall, Chicago

Sam • Alfred Walker (debutto CSO)

Tom • Kevin Short (debutto CSO)

Oscar • Damiana Mizzi (debutto CSO)

Riccardo • Francesco Meli

Renato • Luca Salsi

Il primo giudice • Lunga Eric Hallam (debutto CSO)

Ulrica • Yulia Matochkina (debutto CSO)

Silvano • Ricardo José Rivera (debutto CSO)

Un servo d'Amelia • Aaron Short (debutto di solista CSO)

Amelia • Joyce El-Khoury (debutto CSO)

Chicago Symphony Chorus – direttore Donald Palumbo

Chicago Symphony Orchestra – direttore Riccardo Muti

Eleventh-hour fortunes carried this reviewer Up into the Gods at the Windy City's Orchestra Hall to attend the final CSO Ballo under the baton of lifetime Verdian Riccardo Muti. (This Ballo series retained the North American setting and names, perhaps à propos considering that these performances occurred mere days before the holiday of American Independence plus the fact that the opera's Benevolent Leader shared the same given name as the maestro.)

Star-spangled bravi to the CSO's home forces for most truly championing Verdi this evening. One must delineate chapters of the orchestra's virtuosity: a capacious dynamic range from chamber music to film score philharmonic, without ever sacrificing rhythmic responsiveness or truth of pitch, and citing praise for individual orchestral sections. The strings were unanimous of tone, attack, and vibrato rate, gossamer or powerful as demanded by the specific occasion; beautiful wind section timbres; warmth of the brasses – capable of strength without harshness – and the CSO percussion amplifying the volume and excitement of the Verdian climaxes.

Individual bravi to the various soloists: in Act II, the flute solo in the orchestral introduction and the cor anglais in «Ma dall'arido stelo divulsa»; in Act III, Scene I, the cello in «Morrò, ma prima in grazia», the harp doubled by pizzicato double basses in Act III's «Dunque l'onta di tutti sol una», and the trumpet as the conspirators prepare the lots to be drawn to decide who shall assassinate Riccardo.

Group bravi to the Act III ensembles: the gracious string quartet alla mazurka for Amelia and Riccardo's final dialogue, and the high-spirited banda of the ball itself. The latter ensemble's first interventions, in Riccardo's solo scena «Ah! dessa è là!», gained in piquancy by the addition of a snare drum – this listener's first experience of this orchestrational lagniappe – which lent this passage an aptly Colonial Era flavor.

Under the direction of Met maestro di coro Donald Palumbo, the CSC divulged assets parallel to the orchestra's: unanimity of tone, tuning, and rhythmic response, riding upon an awesome dynamic capacity achieved without sacrificing a single throat. They masterfully rose to all the occasions demanded of them: rousing in the popolano bits, with infectious élan in Act I, Scene I's concluding galop; chest-swellingly ripe in the anthems (e.g. «O figlio d'Inghilterra»), and in the score's early and late sottovoce moments (Act I «Posa in pace», Act III «Cor sì grande e generoso») achieving the reverential hush of a great cathedral choir.

I solisti: Lunga Eric Hallam was pleasantly boyish of timbre though perhaps not authoritative enough to be the Chief Justice of the Land; Ricardo José Rivera was far more forthright of voice in Silvano's final appearance than in his initial appearance, muttering his middle-range piano moments and not ringing out on his climactic high Es (which admittedly were accompanied by the entire CSO); and in his CSO solo debut, Aaron Short intoned the part of Amelia's servant in bewitchingly clear tones.

Solid-toned conspirators Alfred Walker and Kevin Short merited team praise – for excellent ensembl e, both in the sense of rhythmic unanimity and timbral blend – and individual praise for their solo moments. Walker launched «Ve', se di notte» with slyly ironic gallantry, wickledly honoring Verdi's direction «sghignazzando» (sneering) by flavoring his «Ah! ah! ah!» with American snickering inflections. Towards the end of the same ensemble, Short delighted the audience with his quick dips to deep-dish bottom Fs.

(A Prior Hotspot Installment commented upon Kevin Short's Angelotti in the Met's December Tosca.)

Appraisal of the principals is a complex matter, as their performances were obviously colored by Muti's strong – sometimes perhaps even intransigent – ideas of rhetoric, phrasing, breaths, dynamics, and tempi. Throughout, choices were made to shun grandezza in favor of more conversational pacing, taking tempi just speedy enough to seem unfeasible in the theatre. Likewise throughout were sottovoci just chuchotés enough to not carry in a staged performance, yet at Amelia and Riccardo's Act II E major declarations of affection, Muti unleashed the CSO's lustiest most glamourous tutta forza a tempo dilatato – full strength in a distended tempo – thus effectively swamping Joyce El-Khoury and Francesco Meli.

Collectively, the principals were musically superbly prepared, never any faux pas against the score, and unflinchingly responsive to Muti's phrasing exigencies. An overall deficiency of timbral glamour may be lamented, while acknowledging Yulia Matochkina's Ulrica as the most tonally striking of the principals, rich-toned, barely any Slavic traces in her Italian, and adroit of pettosità – applying chest resonance comfortably up to middle F-natural and not risking it any higher.

Damiana Mizzi was commendably voluble of tone and text throughout Oscar's role – never tongue-tied or breath-cheated or rhythmically thrown off – but one craved the aurally captivating timbral shine of the greatest Oscars.

Luca Salsi's voice and use thereof were undistorted by heavy vibrato or aggressive accents: honest of pitch, he phrased towards intimacy. His best top tone was in Act III preceding his aria, the F-sharp of «il sangue tuo»; his other attempts at vocal grandezza fell shy of the bravado desired from a habitué of the Verdi baritone repertoire.

His consort was Joyce El-Khoury. To her credit, she was in lockstep with Muti's phrasing ideas – linking phrases and avoiding rhetorical pauses in the arias – and purled downy pianissimi to her advantage – concluding Amelia's first admission of affection to Riccardo with an extended diminuendo through the ongoing Es and F-sharps of «mi difendi dal mio cor!». The sheer climactic power demanded repeatedly by Amelia's writing was not hers to command – hers seemed more a «classical» instrument that does not expand as it extends upwards – yet she intelligently refrained from forcing for volume. (One admits to a yen for hearing El-Khoury in the da Ponte roles of la Contessa, Donn'Anna, and Fiordiligi.)

Lord of all was longtime Muti comrade Francesco Meli, whose Riccardo communicated male vulnerability even within the strictures of concert performance. He bravely observed Verdi's written plunges of an octave-plus-sixth in the Act II barcaruola's «irati sfidar» and «le forze del cor», and kudos to him for his frequently employed mezzevoci, caressing the ear without ever sacrificing tonal substance. The role's call for more generous vocal outpourings were less successfully met, the voice belabored by scooping into/through the passaggio, pronounciation oddities – throaty /i/ vowel; /ɛ/ vowel in the passaggio opened almost to /a/, comically so when his «alle tr/a/» was answered by the company's «alle tr/e/» – and a heavy oscillation in the full-voiced top register. Might one hope that Meli, currently in his career prime time, can refine his vocalism so it can work hand in glove with his artistic sensibilities?

Obligatory voices of yesteryear

Tokyo 1967: the comfortable mix of power, suavity, and expressivity from Carlo Bergonzi (Gustavo), Lucia Danieli (Ulrica), and Antonietta Stella (Amelia) under the guidance of Oliviero de Fabritiis

Philadelphia 1963: Gustavo/Riccardo's bon viveur traits illuminated in sound by Giuseppe di Stefano under the guidance of Anton Guadagno

US TV 1950: the unique voice lesson of witnessing Leonard Warren play with his resonances throughout «Eri tu».

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