TAMPA — Daniel Lipton, the new artistic director of Opera Tampa, got off to a good start with the first performance of his tenure, Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), Thursday at Ferguson Hall of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Opening the inaugural season of the Florida Opera Festival, it's a Verdi work last staged in these parts by Sarasota Opera more than 20 years ago. Lipton has assembled a fine cast to do it justice.
Of Verdi's 28 operas, Rigoletto, La Traviata, Il Trovatore, Otello and a few others are the mainstays, but Ballo shows off his gold standard for the art form as well as any. Set in colonial Boston (don't ask; the libretto was revised several times to mollify Italian censors in the 1850s), it's a tale of betrayal in which Riccardo, an impulsive count, falls in love with Amelia, wife of his best friend and secretary, Renato. The set from Cincinnati Opera is attractive with a particularly adept touch in the seamless transition from the count's study to the ballroom for the finale.
Riccardo is one of Verdi's best tenor roles, and John Pickle gave a smoothly sung interpretation, right from his Act 1 aria in which he alternates between musing on the responsibilities of rule ("Power is nothing if it cannot dry its subjects' tears") and lyrical tenderness at the thought of Amelia. At times, Pickle's low register became a bit muddy, but his ringing tone in high notes was thrilling.
One of the key relationships in Ballo is that of Riccardo and his page, Oscar, a pants role played by soprano Julia Koci, and the hand of director Robert Tannenbaum was evident in the lighthearted frivolity between them. The boyish Koci has a small voice, but her bursts of soaring vocal display, such as the high-spirited "Tra la la la" of Oscar's Act 3 ballad, came through loud and clear.
Michele Capalbo was in excellent, secure voice as Amelia, but she had trouble sustaining dramatic momentum in the atmospheric Act 2 scene (accompanied by English horn and lots of fog in the blue-green lighting) where she gathered herbs at midnight for a potion to cure her fever for Riccardo. Capalbo fared better in the love duet with Pickle's ardent count. As the wronged husband and friend, Mark Walters arrived at a suitably melancholy characterization in his performance that was both forceful and elegant, finding the Italianate legato lines in Renato's furious aria Eri tu.
Emilia Boteva was a bit obvious as the soothsayer Ulrica, writhing wildly under a spell, but her dusky mezzo-soprano was a vivid presence as she intoned Riccardo's fate. Normally Ulrica vanishes after her scene, but here she reappeared upstage at the end to witness her prophecy come true. The conspirators Tom and Samuel, sung by basses David Cushing and Kenneth Kellogg, had powerful moments, especially Kellogg. Frederick Jackson, as Silvano, led a hymn to Riccardo, and Kyle G. Stevens was an upright judge.
Lipton drew a strong performance from the 47-member orchestra (which featured a cimbasso, the so-called Verdi trombone, played by Jay Bertolet), and the score provided plenty of places for it to shine, such as the symphonic prelude to Act 2. Unfortunately, there was no onstage string band for the masked ball's mazurka, which was played from the pit. Dancers from Next Generation Ballet included a mime and ballerina on point. James K. Bass prepared the chorus well.
If Ballo gets Lipton and the new festival off on the right foot artistically, the scheduling this weekend (and for some subsequent productions) is oddly misconceived, with matinees today and Sunday. This will not go down well with opera singers, who are accustomed to at least a day of rest between performances.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.