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Desire Unmasked

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Adapting an existing text was not unusual in the 19th century, and in any case, "Gustave III" had only experienced moderate success in Paris.



But what was acceptable in Paris would not pass in the more politically unstable atmosphere of Naples. The censors there would not allow the opera to be staged because it portrayed the assassination of a monarch: "Gustave III" was based on the real-life murder of the Swedish king in 1792. Complicating matters further was a recent attempt on the life of the French emperor in 1858.



"A Masked Ball" had to be changed or it could not be staged.



So Sweden became Boston, the Swedish

king became Riccardo, the English Earl of Warwick, and eventually Naples became

Rome, as Verdi had his opera premiered in a more welcoming environment.



In recent years, there has been a

trend for productions to revert to the "original" setting, but Virginia Opera's

new production keeps the American locale.



Director Ken Cazan, staging his first

production for the company, says the Colonial setting might help audiences connect

more directly with the work. Straying politicians are no strangers to the American

experience, nor unfortunately are political assassinations. "A Masked Ball"

sends a powerful message about what happens when public duty and private desire

clash.



Although "A Masked Ball" has always

been popular, it has never enjoyed the degree of success of Verdi's other operas,

"Traviata" and "Rigoletto," or even the spectacular "Aida." Mark believes this

is due to the complexity and difficulty of the leading roles. And the conductor

is excited about his young cast, all of whom are trying out their roles for

the first time.



For soprano Fabiana Bravo, heard

earlier this season as the heroine of Puccini's "Tosca," Amelia is a wonderful

opportunity to portray a woman who experiences a wide range of emotions from

love to guilt to despair over the course of three acts.



There is also the "Verdi soprano"

line to deal with. Bravo says this composer demands a voice that is flexible,

expressive and able to go from low to high and back over the course of a few

phrases. Verdi also demands a great deal of dynamic control; Bravo finds this

to be different from Tosca, where power and strength over a loud orchestra are

more paramount.



Tenor Frank Porretta, also heard

in "Tosca," returns as the male lead, Riccardo.



"It's a role that lies high in the

voice," says Porretta, who has sung several other Verdi tenor roles in "Aida,"

"Otello," "Il Trovatore" and "Rigoletto."



Porretta is attracted by the character's

music (he has several arias, plus a love duet with Amelia), the character's

nobility and goodness, and his stylishness and elegance. Porretta says the latter

qualities distinguish the part from other Verdi roles and have attracted many

great tenors to the role over the years, from Caruso to Carreras and Pavarotti.



Renato, the loyal friend turned assassin,

is in the hands of baritone Gary Simpson. A tall man with a quiet sense of authority,

Simpson is familiar with Verdi baritone roles, having sung numerous Rigolettos

and Germonts. Vocally he feels the part is comfortable for him; dramatically

he has to portray a man who seems much better at keeping his feelings contained.

When his anger at his friend is finally released, the results are devastating.



Throw in a gypsy fortuneteller who

may or may not be a fraud, a lively and sometimes insolent page and sinister

conspirators named Sam and Tom, and all the ingredients are in place for a grand

operatic happening. S



The Virginia Opera presents Verdi's

"A Masked Ball" March 22, 24 and 26 at the Carpenter Center. Tickets cost $26-$75.

Call 262-8100.



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