Critic’s Pick: Verdi via Southern California

The celebration of the bicentennial of Verdi’s birth in October brought an abundance of opera productions everywhere. But if things have gotten back to normal in the rest of the operatic world, Southern California, up and down the coast, has suddenly become the new late-winter Verdi resort.

Two weeks ago the Pacific Symphony chose “La Traviata” as its annual semi-staged opera in Costa Mesa. This weekend, Santa Barbara Opera mounts Verdi’s “Falstaff,” and San Diego Opera opens a stellar new production of his “Un Ballo in Maschera” (“The Masked Ball”).

There have been no shortage of California “Falstaff”s lately. Los Angeles Opera, San Francisco Opera and Opera San Jose all mounted Verdi’s last opera last fall. San Jose’s “Falstaff” is now being trucked down to Santa Barbara, but the production’s stage director, Jose Maria Condemi, also happens to be Santa Barbara Opera’s artistic director. Baritone Todd Thomas is the fat knight who enjoys a quaff or 10. In his review, San Jose Mercury News music critic Richard Scheinin described Steven C. Kemp’s set as bringing to mind the interior of a beer keg.

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San Diego, meanwhile, is boasting a big-name cast for its new “Ballo,” Verdi’ middle-period opera about the 1792 assassination of Sweden’s King Gustav III (but with the action originally moved to Boston to avoid showing a king killed on stage). The Polish tenor, Piotr Beczala, comes with interesting recent Verdi experience. He starred in the Met’s gangster “Rigoletto” last year. Then in December, he was the tenor for La Scala’s high-society opening night.

This time he was booed! The traditional Milanese in the upper balconies didn’t like a controversial new production of “La Traviata” by the often brilliantly original Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov (whose new production of Borodin’s “Prince Igor” at the Met is currently dividing opinion).


Angered by uproar, Beczala has announced he will not sing at La Scala again. But apparently, the tenor will be in more agreeable company Saturday night at San Diego Civic Theatre (where performances continue through March 16). There he will be joined by impressive American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, along with Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova.

Massimo Zanetti conducts and the production by Lesley Koenig is unlikely to cause offense. Meanwhile, the scandal has done nothing to hurt the sales of Beczala’s delightful new Deutsche Grammophon recording, “The Songs of Richard Tauber.”


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‘Falstaff’ dramatically flawed but musically bracing

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