There were certainly no demure debutantes nor Lugner-ish Lotharios in this visually appealing, traditional staging of Un ballo in maschera by Gianfranco de Bosio. First mounted in 1986 for Luciano Pavarotti under Claudio Abbado, the set-designs by Emanuele Luzzati and costumes by Santuzza Calì have aged quite well, although the proliferation of Louis XIV perukes must be a Wig Master’s nightmare.

Ramón Vargas (Gustavo) and Maria Nazarova (Oscar) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Ramón Vargas (Gustavo) and Maria Nazarova (Oscar)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
In opting for Verdi’s original regicidal Swedish setting as opposed to colonial bumpkins in Boston, de Bosio was able to infuse a certain regal dignity into the production (much loved by Habsburg-happy Austrians) but unfortunately the deportment of most of the supposed Swedish nobility was a long way from the Almanach de Gotha. There was also the ongoing mystery in German speaking countries of calling Count Ribbing (an actual historical character and named as such in the original libretto) “Graf Warting”. The raison d’être for such a modification seems impossible to elucidate.

Any revival is rarely going to engender the same level of excitement as a première and this was no exception. Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas is better known for lighter bel canto Donizetti and Rossini repertoire, and his leggere technique was severely challenged by Verdi’s heavier vocal demands and long lyrical phrases. Although there was some agreeable mid-range singing in his Romanza in Act III and the final B flat was cleanly taken, almost all other sustained notes above A flat were pushed and dry. The lighter passages, such as “Ogni cura si doni al diletto” and “È scherzo od è follia” were clearly more comfortable. He wisely eschewed the regularly interpolated high C at the end of the “Non sei tu che se l’anima mia” duet with Amelia in Act II. His Italian diction was mostly muddy.

Making her Staatsoper debut as Amelia, Arkansas-born soprano Kristin Lewis came with considerable expectations. Comparisons with the formidable Leontyne Price were obvious. In fact this is a curious voice – all the requisite parts are there but the whole is still lacking. Whilst there is excellent breath control, outstanding projection, clean fioratura, an ability to spin a long Verdian phrase and a refulgent top register, there is also a tendency towards excessive vibrato and an alarmingly noticeable gear change between registers. The big “Ecco l’orrido campo” scena had all the gutsy chest notes, top B naturals and strong high C, but there was something missing. Too much technique over intuitive interpretation? The more lyrical “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” was again technically sound but lacked conviction. This is still a voice in progress.

George Petean (Anckarström) and Kristin Lewis (Amelia) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
George Petean (Anckarström) and Kristin Lewis (Amelia)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Much more satisfactory was the Anckarström of Romanian baritone George Petean who recently also sang the title role in the Staatsoper’s new production of Macbeth. This is a voice of Cappuccilli-like strength in the upper register and the top F and G naturals in the great “Eri tu” were clarion in strength, tone and projection, while the lyrical middle section was impeccably phrased. Only the extreme low notes were slightly underpowered.

The fatal prophetess Ulrica was sung by veteran mezzo Monica Bohinec whose low register was suitably sepulchral but whose imperious stage presence was more Erda than Azucena.

Counts Horn and Ribbing (aka Warting) were well portrayed by Romanian basses Alexandru Moisiuc and Dan Paul Dumitrescu who looked more like Fafner and Fasolt in 18th-century court dress, especially beside the diminutive Oscar, but sang with sufficient projection to overcome the ominous orchestration.

The star performer of the evening was young Russian coloratura Maria Nazarova as Oscar who brought dramatic credibility, humour and remarkable technical skill to the role. Her effortless fioratura and stellar staccato in “Volta la terrea” and clarity of intonation in the Act III canzona were absolutely flawless. With a pure tone colour similar to Reri Grist, this young singer has both superb vocal technique and a compelling stage presence. Olympia and Zerbinetta cannot be far away.

Kristin Lewis (Amelia), George Petean (Anckarström), Ramón Vargas (Gustavo), Maria Nazarova (Oscar) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Kristin Lewis (Amelia), George Petean (Anckarström), Ramón Vargas (Gustavo), Maria Nazarova (Oscar)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

Experienced maestro Jesús López Cobos led the Wiener Staatsoper orchestra with considerable élan and passion (not to mention volume) even if the overall result was far from solicitous to the singers. The luxuriant Vienna string tone was as seductive as ever and there was some sensitive playing from solo cor anglais and flute.

Unquestionably, the Oscar for the best singing in a regicidal Swedish opera by Verdi goes to... Oscar.