“For some operas,” famed conductor Carlo Maria Giulini once said, “you can accept a voice of not absolute beauty – if it is well used and he is an artist and interpreter, it will work. But for Verdi you need all this plus the essential sound.”

Margaret Mezzacappa © Paul Sirochman
Margaret Mezzacappa
© Paul Sirochman

The Academy of Vocal Arts’ final production of the 2012/13 season, Verdi’s Un Ballo In Maschera, delivered a cadre of beautiful dramatic voices also capable of producing that “essential sound” critical to the opera’s success.

Ballo is hardly a beloved Verdi work – no signature arias you can leave the theatre humming, not like Il Trovatore or Aida. The leading character, King Gustavo, is barely sympathetic – he’s chasing another man’s wife and has amassed a ring of conspirators plotting to kill him for unsavory acts committed against them. While it is true that Gustavo III of Sweden was assassinated at a masquerade, the treatment of this historical “retelling” is all Verdi, focusing on the passion and aberrant human behavior that occur during times of dramatic upheaval. The libretto is flowery, dated, and somewhat preposterous. A self-absorbed European monarch is more consumed by his desire for an illicit love than running his country and searching out and rubbing out his conspirators? That the opera continues to be popular in the contemporary repertoire must be because of the music – the soaring and sophisticated score that demands power and range from its principal singers.

And deliver they did. As King Gustavo, tenor William Davenport, a second-year resident artist, delivered such a complete performance that he made King Gustavo nearly sympathetic, all the while pouring forth a gorgeous dramatic tenor that swept over the audience in waves of sound. He was ideally suited to the Italian opera, even conveying a sensibility of the late great Luciano Pavarotti, complete with a characteristic ping in his top notes.

During his time studying at AVA, fourth-year baritone Zachary Nelson has delivered more than a few stellar performances, most recently in Don Quichotte. He has admirable range as a performer and was just as effective as the spurned Renato, whose disfiguring need for revenge transforms him into an assassin, as he was playing the comically quirky Sancho two months prior. His third act aria “Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima”, when he decries the treachery of his own wife and a man he considered his best friend, was simply masterful. Bravo, Signore Nelson.

Mezzo-soprano Margaret Mezzacappa, also a fourth-year artist, was a show-stealer as the fortune teller Ulrica. Much is expected of the performer interpreting this role – the scene in her demonic den enlivens and advances the opera – and Mezzacappa embraced the challenge. She is a world-class talent, and her haunting rendition of “Re dell'abisso, affrettati” in Act I inviting Gustavo into her eerie lair was proof of that. Her acting talent and her vocal gifts are ideally suited to Verdi roles.

Soprano Shelly Jackson sang beautifully in the trouser role of Oscar, the king’s page, and was warmly rewarded for her prowess at curtain call. However, the role of Oscar is a bit confounding – so light and cute, for instance, the page cuddles on the king’s knee at one point – that it seems as though Oscar doesn’t belong in this show but rather in something by Rossini. This is no reflection on Jackson, a first-year artist, whom I look forward to seeing in future AVA productions.

Bass Patrick Guetti and bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana as the conspirators were vitally important to the show’s vocal success, contributing masterfully to the ensemble numbers and the quintet. Verdi choruses and ensembles are worth the price of admission.

But best of show must honors must go to soprano Marina Costa-Jackson as Amelia, wracked by a burning love for Gustavo that can never be consummated. Costa-Jackson has the makings of a great Verdi soprano – make that a great dramatic soprano, period. She has a nuanced vibrato that reminded me of American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. Costa-Jackson’s voice has power, all across her range from the highest and lowest notes the role demands. Her sound is big and soars above the orchestra, but it is also a beautiful voice, lovely to listen to. She has the requisite grace of all great sopranos in her carriage and her movements. She commands your attention when she is onstage. A first-year AVA resident artist, judging from her performance in such a demanding role – three powerhouse arias – surely she is bound for greatness in the international arena.

The AVA transports their productions all across the Philadelphia region, customarily traveling to four or five venues during each run. The set has to work in each location. Though some of the grandeur of the ball is lost due to the constraints of the stage at Centennial Hall at the Haverford School combined with the reality of producing portable three-act opera; it still worked as a complete production. Credit director Tito Capobianco for getting the essentials right and for eliciting such genuine and moving performances from his cast when melodrama could have prevailed. While it is always a treat to hear the AVA Opera Theatre Orchestra, and the expectation is that Verdi’s music will stir, an orchestra doesn’t have to overpower the venue or the singers to do that. It has been a lament of mine since the first AVA production I reviewed in Centennial Hall that the orchestra often gets too loud, yet the practice continues unabated. Nothing should detract from the great Verdi voices AVA assembled on that stage – only augment.

All in all, AVA’s Un Ballo In Maschera impressively closed a solid season, and the incoming class augurs more great performances in 2013/14. Viva, Verdi. Viva, AVA!