Giuseppe Verdi's 1859 thriller/tearjerker, Un Ballo In Maschera, opened Monday night at Lyric Opera of Chicago. The score, arguably the most beautiful Verdi ever wrote, is a mesmerizing mélange of irresistible orchestral interludes and convivial choruses, punctuated with soul-baring arias and fiery duets scattered strategically throughout three magnificent acts that astonish with their melodic power and beauty. Conductor Asher Fisch led the Lyric orchestra with plenty of dramatic flair and oomph. The overture—a simple, lullaby-like melody that gradually blossoms into a rapturous love theme—was very pretty, reminding us yet again of Verdi's incurable and morbid obsession with romantic love in all its giddy first stages. The prelude that transports us into Ulrica's lair was wonderfully sinister; in sharp contrast, Amelia's prayer from the previous scene, which makes a brief reprise in Act II just before Amelia sings "Ecco l'orrido campo," was especially graceful.
An excellent performance of Ballo depends a great deal on the vocal merits of its leading lady. Amelia, one of Verdi's most inspired heroines, requires a soprano endowed with a range of seismic power to cope with the role's killer music. There are few sopranos today whose lungs are powerful enough to encompass the role's vocal challenges without straining herself. Sondra Radvanovsky (pictured above) is one of those sopranos. She brought out the inherent sadness and desperation that inflames Amelia's conflicted heart without resorting to diva antics. Her voice—mostly made up of piercing head tones with a celestial clarity several carats worth—is an ideal match for Amelia's deeply profound music. From her first tentative utterances in Ulrica's cavern, she perked up my ears. By the time she arrived at the gallows to sing the taxing aria, "Ma dall'arido stelo divulsa"—a five-minute soliloquy that unmasks and reveals the soprano's technique, stamina and everything else in her arsenal—she grabbed me by the throat. Verdi, as though testing the singer's ability, demands breathtaking legato passages, inexhaustible breath control, ample volume, and if that's not enough crowns the aria with a daring high C. Ms. Radvanovsky passed the test, though her Italian diction could use some serious coaching. She did not seem to caress Amelia's exquisite music so much as glide through them from note to note. The searing "Morrò, ma prima in grazia," in her delicate phrasing, was a heartfelt plea devoid of histrionics yet infused with just the right amount of pathos. The series of duets in Act II with Frank Lopardo's Riccardo did not disappoint—or, rather, she did not disappoint. Mr. Lopardo's frayed, rough-around-the-edges tenor fell short of Riccardo's regal and heroic music. The romantic aria "Ma se m'è forza perderti," in Mr. Lopardo's nasal timbre, failed to capture hearts, least of all mine. He had a promising start, I must say: "La rivedrà nell'estasi" was sung with ardor. But that pretty little serenade does not make Riccardo Riccardo. Further, he had no palpable chemistry with Ms. Radvanovsky's heavily cloaked Amelia, and his voice is regional-level opera at best, not meant for the major league that Lyric is. As for Ms. Radvanovsky's vocal style: it was somewhat non-committal, sounding detached during crucial moments. But it was her solid technique and strong demeanor, however, that got her through the demanding role alive, eventually thawing her performance. (She began with a Nordic, Mattila-like palette which gave way towards the end to an autumnal palette of warm, Caravaggio-esque colors.) Baritone Mark Delavan sang Renato's signature "Eri tu" with enough passion but offered none of the manly elegance that someone like Piero Cappuccilli gave to this sublime aria. Debuting mezzo Stephanie Blythe as the fortune-teller Ulrica was insanely brilliant: she stole the entire show, which is a huge accomplishment considering her character appears in one measly scene. Kathleen Kim as the pageboy Oscar was certainly a mischievous young man whose raging hormones and adolescent awkwardness are humorously reflected in his (or her) coloratura roulades, and almost all of which Ms. Kim navigated with confidence, fluttering about the stage like a titillated butterfly. The ageless Renata Scotto directed this traditional but visually arresting production. It runs until December 10.