“Hate breeds hate.” I cannot possibly count all the times that I have heard this alarmingly true statement during my entire lifetime be it from my parents, mentors, or other individuals that I have encoutered. Indeed, this statement has proven too true countless times throughout the history of mankind, becoming a perennial favorite theme for artistic works ranging from novels to plays. The opera world has particularly become fond of this theme, and while Carmen and Otello remain some of the best-known examples of operas containing this theme, Verdi’s once-controversial and exquisite A Masked Ball – now in its 14th showing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago – provides fresh fare for those seeking an opera within this theme outside of the mainstream favorites.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago did not disappoint in this extravagant production of Verdi’s tragic and tangled tale. Truly fit for a king, this traditional-style production wasted no royalties on quality and accuracy. The Lyric laudably chose to remain faithful to Verdi’s original intentions in both setting and character names, ignoring the initial censorship which re-set this 18th-century Swedish tale in colonial Boston and practically re-named almost all of the characters. The result: An 18th-century extravaganza complete with lavish, historically-accurate sets and costumes. 18th-century folk loyally salute the king in the opening act, while mischievous harlequin-clad ballet dancers caper in the background during the grand finale. Surprises and clever special effects – ranging from snowflakes to genuinely-lit candles and glittery confetti in the finale – awaited the audience at every turn. Additionally, the lighting was stellar, especially in Ulrica’s lair -- a truly spooky and satanic experience upon which I shall elaborate later. For the finishing touches, the orchestra masterfully accompanied the singers and passionately delivered the emotionally-charged strains of Verdi's moving score, setting the foreboding tone for the opera.

The cast of this “Ball” production was literally the absolute dream cast with no flaws or miscasts whatsoever. Lyric tenor Frand Lopardo – with his confident presence and flowing, non-forced voice – proved the ultimate Gustavus III. Striding with majesty across the stage, Lopordo brilliantly captured the full range of the king’s varied emotions from brassy over-confidence to amorous weakness in both his voice and body language. His stateliness and tenderness were greatly complemented and contrasted by that of his female co-star, the vocally eloquent Verdi specialist and soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. As Amelia, Radvanovsky truly portrayed an emotionally tormented individual, nervous yet morally determined and caring towards both Gustavus and her husband. Her melodious and heart-felt pleading truly captured the hearts of the audience, drawing thunderous applause and shouts of "Brava!" at the conclusion of every aria. Finally, baritone Mark Delevan nobly executed the role of Amelia’s loyal yet emotionally rash husband, Count Anckarstrom. Again, physical bravo and powerful vocal presence prevailed, culminating in a stormy character which supercedes Anckarstrom’s benevolent and loyal nature.

Meanwhile on the sinister side, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe accurately captured the satanic essence of Ulrica the sorceress, acting with feline suaveness and hypnotically delivering her vocal lines in a truly chilling manner. In fact, her rendition of Ulrica’s satanic invocation – combined with the stellar lighting techniques of this production – was so convincing that I literally found myself praying the “Hail Mary”. Her demonic presence was excellently balanced by the angelic and cheeky antics of petite yet perky Korean-American soprano Kathleen Kim as Oscar. A true show-stealer, Kim’s lovable Oscar – an innocent yet loyal little fellow – greatly lightened up the otherwise sinister tone of the opera, consequently drawing frequent giggles from audience members. Kim’s performance was so masterful that I actually saw a little boy rather than a petite young woman playfully skipping across the stage, chattering, taunting, and often vexing fellow cast members. For the finishing touches, bass baritones Craig Irvin and Sam Handley masterfully lend their gutteral tones to the oily mutterings of conspirators Count Ribbing and Count Horn, while the Lyric's chorus provided all the necessary force needed for the opera's signature chorus/ensemble numbers.

Dan Rest / Lyric Opera of Chicago
Dan Rest / Lyric Opera of Chicago

In the end, this production of A Masked Ball was truly a royal treat worthy of the attention of any opera fan, singer, actor, or lover of good stories in general. While not the best choice for a newcomer to the wonderful world of opera, this tale of treason, weakness, and forgiveness will undoubtedly delight those seasoned opera-goers who crave the genius of Verdi and Italian opera in general. Suspense and evil lie waiting at every corner, yet the opera's touching end and gentle protagonists leave the audience with the optimistic messages that all men and women -- even the most moral -- are weak, and that good always prevails over evil. Hence, although hate breeds hate, love and forgiveness conquer hate, resulting in harmonious resolution not too unlike the harmony that prevailed both on and off the stage at the Lyric.