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OPERA REVIEW

Lyric Opera unmasks new 'Ballo'

All hail Riccardo, Governor of Boston!

Er, which governor was that?

Colonial Boston surely seems light years away from the world of 19th-century Italian opera, but that was precisely the point when Verdi and his librettist, Antonio Somma, chose to appease the nervous censors of Rome by transporting their opera of political intrigue and regicide -- "Un Ballo in Maschera" -- to some place far from European shores. The place they chose was late 17th-century Boston, turning King Gustavus III of Sweden into Governor Riccardo.

These days, plenty of "Ballo" productions repatriate the action back to the Swedish court of Gustavus III, whose actual assassination at a masked ball in 1792 is the kernel of historical truth around which Verdi and his librettist spun their fanciful melodrama. The Boston Lyric Opera's new production of "Ballo," which premiered last night at the Shubert Theatre, follows this trend, and uses the character names from the Swedish setting. One could have imagined the director James Robinson and the creative team having fun by riffing creatively off of the opera's local roots, but this is also a co-production with Opera Colorado and the Minnesota Opera, so off we went to 18th-century Sweden.

All of this said, Robinson and colleagues have mounted an attractive traditional production that serves the opera well, even if it does not break much fresh interpretive ground. The company has also fielded a solid cast with lots of collective vocal heft, making sure that this "Ballo" delivers its pleasures with directness and force.

Allen Moyer's sets are based around a grand and well-appointed palace room (handsomely lit by Duane Schuler) that literally comes unglued as chaos descends on the opera's central characters. Besides the ill-starred Gustavus III, there is Amelia, the wife of the king's closest aid, Count Anckarström . A tumultuous love triangle plays out, in which the king and Amelia declare their love for each other, and the count, once he discovers the betrayal, seeks murderous revenge.

Julian Gavin sang the role of Gustavus with a strong, clear tenor voice, though one wished for more regal dignity in his portrayal of the king. Instead, his Act I goofiness (jumping off a chair, etc.) diminished the tragedy of his character's later plight. Romanian soprano Doina Dimitriu sang Amelia with impressive power and vocal intensity but also with a tendency to oversing in her upper register.

As the Count, Chen-Ye Yuan showed off a robust and flexible baritone with a warm core to it, and a feel for some of the psychological complexity contained in his role. And Heidi Stober, a singer to watch, was a spunky standout in the smaller trouser role of Oscar, the king's page. Her soprano is light and agile and she deploys it with impressive control.

The chorus was in fine form, and music director Stephen Lord showed a sure hand in the pit, with many moments -- like the Prelude to Act II -- that caught the ear by wedding both the beauty and the pathos of Verdi's popular score.

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