OPERA REVIEW : Verdi by the Numbers in Costa Mesa

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

It hasn't been a good year for Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera."

The San Francisco Opera cranked out an indifferent production showcasing an ailing, second-rate cast. The mighty Met mustered a muddled monstrosity featuring should-be and would-be superstars, and toned down the theatrical excesses after a disastrous opening.

Wednesday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Opera Pacific tried its hand. The local "Ballo" wasn't awful like the old one up North, and it wasn't embarrassing like the new one on the East Coast. It was merely dull and dutiful. Call it enlightened provincial.

As home-made--well, home-assembled--opera in Costa Mesa ends its fifth so-called season--do three works really constitute a season?--certain patterns are becoming clear. As led by David DiChiera, this company doesn't take chances.

It concentrates on the sing-along Italian and French repertory. Forget anything new, anything really old and anything German.

It borrows conventional, often flimsy sets and costumes from other cities, and usually populates them with minor stars and/or major nonentities. It engages conductors of moderate prowess to enforce order with an uneven ensemble, an under-rehearsed orchestra and a sometimes wayward chorus.

It engages second-string theatrical wizards to direct traffic. Forget the concept of a concept.

It encourages inadvertent mirth with clumsy, ill-timed, distracting supertitles. Thanks to the acoustical quirks of Segerstrom Hall--one dare not revive the evil specter of electronic amplification--it makes everything sound abnormally loud.

And so it was with "Ballo."

Zack Brown's relatively fancy, quasi-realistic decors came from Washington. They provided pretty pictures.

Anne Ewers, who had overseen entrances and exits for the San Francisco fiasco, was brought here to tell the participants where to come and where to go. Her most striking innovations proved awkwardly melodramatic: the grief-stricken soprano had to clutch her young son's doll while singing "Morro, ma prima in grazia," and the jealous baritone was made to point a gun at a bust of the king while snarling "Eri tu."

Stephen Ross, credited as lighting designer, managed two basic degrees of illumination: light and not-so light.

Louis Salemno, the rather primitive conductor, kept everything moving. Unfortunately, everything didn't always move the same way at the same time.

The principals semed left pretty much to their own devices. Some devices proved better than others.

Taro Ichihara, the most consistently successful participant, sang the music of King Gustavo (a.k.a. Riccardo) with uncommon sweetness, elegance and point, a few signs of strain at the top notwithstanding. His vocal sensitivity and concern for style made one want to overlook his histrionic restraint. He is, after all, a tenor.

Leona Mitchell left a mixed impression as Amelia. When she was good, she was very good indeed. She traced the arching spinto lines with heroic splendor, and she caressed the introspective climaxes with ravishing pianissimo tones. When she was bad, she swooped and all but screamed. In either case, she avoided characterization in favor of prima-donna poses.

Timothy Noble appeared as Anckarstrom (a.k.a. Renato) despite an indisposition. In a pre-curtain speech, DiChiera apologized for the baritone's "swollen vocal cords." Under the circumstances, one had to admire his valor, his fervor and his ability to husband impaired resources. One also had to wonder where his understudy was.

The remainder of the cast came from a lesser league. Cynthia Munzer's lightweight mezzo-soprano fell victim to the heavyweight music of Ulrica. Rosemary Bollin introduced a pudgy Oscarino whose promising coloratura soprano kept slipping in and out of focus.

There must be a better way.

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