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OPERA REVIEW

Beautiful singing helps redeem plot

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / May 7, 2011

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Having already presented a faithful wife (“Fidelio’’) and a jealous, secretive jeweler (“Cardillac’’), Opera Boston finished its season with Gaetano Donizetti’s 1841 “Maria Padilla,’’ an opera about a jealous, secretive, faithful wife. Maria, realizing her lover is the heir to the Spanish throne in disguise (the historical Pedro the Cruel), coerces a betrothal, a bond strained as the new king is pressured into a political marriage. It’s no more creaky than many bel canto plots — until an incongruous, censor-mandated happy ending makes hash of both history and tragic momentum.

Director Julia Pevzner and designer Alexander Lisiyansky previously teamed up for Opera Boston’s darkly giddy production of Shostakovich’s “The Nose’’; here, though, they seemed unsure just what to make of such a story. The symbolism of Lisiyansky’s multitasking set was simple enough — a winding spiral leading up to a giant, hanging crown — but this Maria seemed less Machiavellian than impulsive and improvisatory. Pevzner’s staging left motivations and relationships equivocal, eventually reliant on stock operatic vocabulary.

Donizetti’s musical energy nearly redeems it. If the score lacks the seductive tunefulness of Donizetti’s greater hits, the rich orchestration and ingenious ensemble writing compensate. Conductor Gil Rose was attentive to the gravity and color of the sound, and faster sections had rhythmic snap.

Tenor Adriano Graziani was a standout as Maria’s father, Don Ruiz, an energetically clear voice, a sure top, and a feel for the style — and an equal to the opera’s novelty, a tenorial mad scene. As Don Pedro, baritone DongWon Kim sang with sturdy, well-appointed darkness throughout his range. Young Bok Kim, as courtier Don Ramiro, coupled a heavy, ringing bass to a self-assured nefariousness. Mezzo-soprano Laura Vlasak Nolen brought a big, metallic sound to the part of Ines, Maria’s sister.

The title role was taken by soprano Barbara Quintiliani, who has anchored other Donizetti and Verdi operas, and it’s not hard to hear why: her voice has mettle, power, and color. She was reportedly battling illness, which might account for inconsistency — her top took time to warm up, and her second act duet with Nolen became unmoored.

But elsewhere, the singing was often spectacular. At the opening of the third act, a tableau of madness, despair, and forgiveness, Quintiliani and Graziani combined to deliver on the promise embodied in bel canto: frailties of plot and body trumped by utterly beautiful singing.

OPERA BOSTON Donizetti: “Maria Padilla’’ Julia Pevzner, director; Gil Rose, conductor

At: Cutler Majestic Theatre, last night (repeats tomorrow and Tuesday)