Love and death, jealousy and revenge, assassination and intrigue, culminating in a dazzle of song, dance, and a shower of sparkling gold; this exquisite piece of theater is, in the end, all about the music. The arias, ensembles and choruses of Verdi's A Masked Ball, each more intensely intricate than the last, regale the listener with their sophistication and beauty. Add in a dream cast, and the final product left the opening night capacity audience at San Diego Opera reeling with delight.

At the center of this vocal constellation was Polish tenor Piotr Beczała. Last seen at SDO in his acclaimed 2010 debut in La bohème, Beczała counts among his performance venues the world’s top opera houses and concert halls. His rendering of the difficult role of the beleaguered, lovesick King Gustavo demonstrated the truth behind his impressive background. The tenor’s voice poured from him like liquid gold. He paired his sensuous, exquisite tones, velvet phrasing and subtle dynamic contrasts with a dramatically varied characterization that made his final sacrificing of all for the sake of his love believable. 

In a stunning SDO debut, her first time performing the fatally conflicted Amelia, Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova showed mastery of a notoriously problematic role that has defeated many a singer. Able to rise above a heavy orchestration while negotiating tricky florid passages within her two arias, she filled in the undulating vocal lines with ample sound and breadth, and adeptly carried off the technical passages without missing a single note. Even in the climactic high C of her second act aria, her vocal dexterity never failed.

The highlight of the evening was these two artists’ passionate duet, in which their voices were as perfectly matched as a finely tuned and exquisitely blended as a Pinot nero.

In an inspired bit of luxury casting, internationally lauded mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe made her SDO debut in the brief but pivotal role of the psychic fortuneteller, Ulrica. Her Wagnerian expertise served her well, both in vocal power and dramatic breadth. From the first terrifying moment calling in the king to the abyss, until the shocking moment when she reveals Gustavo’s impending doom, she dominated her big scene with panache. As Ulrica, she reigned supreme.

Greek baritone Aris Argiris, in his North American debut, provided ample support as Beczała’s most faithful confidant, Count Anckarström. His baritone, if not as vocally beautiful as those in the other major roles, was generous and easily heard, and his arias were deftly phrased.

As Gustavo’s ever-faithful pageboy Oscar, Kathleen Kim quickly became an audience favorite. Despite her tiny stature, the clarity of her voice cut through to the last row of the house in every solo passage and ensemble despite the heaviest orchestration. Her sparkling, winning characterization was an added plus to a role in which she seemed utterly confident and at ease. Hers was undoubtedly a SDO debut to remember. Scott Sikon, Kevin Langan and Ashraf Sewailam solidly backed up the stellar cast with their accustomed proficiency.

In another impressive House debut, conductor Massimo Zanetti skillfully demonstrated his expertise culled from collaborations with virtually every major opera house in Europe. From the first three pizzicati to the final delicate high B of the Act I Prelude, the maestro displayed meticulous attention to dynamics and coaxed velvety sounds from the strings, breathless tones from the winds, and appropriate weightiness from the brass. One would have preferred some of the tempi to be less rushed, allowing the instruments to do full justice to the cascades of notes required of them.

Returning after her great success in SDO’s Samson and Delilah last season, director Lesley Koenig showed her usual inventiveness in staging this work. From the very beginning, Koenig conveys the importance of disguises and masquerades; for example, in Act I, she includes a diorama of the Act III ball scene set to foreshadow Gustavo’s visualizing the decor, while he toys with a mask and banters with Oscar. Koenig moves the characters around the stage with great subtlety, their actions always flowing organically, never forced, beautifully integrated with designer John Conklin’s appealing sets. Conklin’s use of the balcony in the ball scene was both effective and appealing, adding much needed space for action between the characters. Repeating his admirable choreographic showing in last season’s Samson, Kenneth von Heidecke solved the problem of dovetailing the large number of cast members on stage in Act III with an ongoing “Commedia dell’Arte” ballet that was lively and arresting, foreshadowing the murder about to take place.

When every last piece of glitter had fallen to the floor, one was left with the poignancy of the final scene and its brief choral hymn, which director Koenig has called “the most beautiful eleven bars and a quarter note in all of opera.”