A second-hand Ballo production with a star no one is dying to hear does not exactly a splashy season opener make. But on the plus side it: 1) wasn't Barber (which last year kept me out of the opera house til November) and 2) was really a very solid effort, if not quite exhilarating.
The production, which comes from Colorado or something, is, um, efficient. Everything's been moved back to Sweden as originally intended before censors made Verdi set it in Puritan New England. The scenes at court, which are dominated by this back wall of big whitewashed tiles and a deteriorating ceiling, kind of look like they take place in a subway station. Those basic wall and ceiling elements shift about and have a go at suggesting the other settings (witch hut, brooding moors, Renato's house) but it is never much to look at. The excellent lighting, however, has a very distinctive Nordic shadowiness, and and goes a long way towards salvaging the meager raw materials.
When Licitra's voice is firing on all cylinders, his Riccardo has the most juice of anyone onstage. Hearing barn-sized voices ringing out in the KC opera house just doesn't get old and he's got that natural pro's charisma to boot. Unfortunately, the overall package is marred by bouts of unfocused sound, some inelegant planning (Riccardo's arias are hard, yo), and pitchiness here and there.
After that, Tamara Wilson as Amelia was probably the standout of the evening. The sound is taut and attractive and very exciting throughout, with only a bit of strain on top to contrast with the ease everywhere else. She doesn't quite have the knack for milking the big numbers in a way that makes them showstoppers yet, but that can't be too far off.
Milking issues were a problem in Renato's material as well. Here's a very strongly sung portrayal by Luca Salsi, authoritative, rich, etc., but when we got to the big Act III number where you want that great Verdian moment of heartbreak amidst the thunder, they kind of plowed through it.
Elena Manistina's scene-stealing Ulrica also deserves a shout out, though putting the action back in Sweden forces one to spend that entire scene thinking about how this random native witch lady ended up in Sweden in the first place. And how she deals when it gets really cold.
Daniele Callegari handled things nicely in the pit for the most part, I think (judging orchestral prowess in middle period Verdi is not a strong suit, I'm afraid), though a number of the ensembles were dicey where they should have been thrilling and climactic. Also, just as a public service announcement, sitting in the orchestra on the extreme right under the balcony makes the orchestra sound really canned in that space.
Opening night at WNO is naturally a more sedate affair than the paparazzi-mad decadence of Met, but we were bummed at the total absence of famous-for-DC sightings, which may indicate either a disturbing lack of opera enthusiasm from the current administration or weird DC hangups about going to a gala on the dread 9/11. Come on people, if it's an elitism issue, just remind reporters that they had to perform Gotterdammerung IN FRONT OF THE CURTAIN...
Update: Kagan was there and we missed her?!?!? Arg!