CORY WEAVER/SAN FRANCISCO OPERAJulianna Di Giacomo makes an impressive mainstage debut as Amelia in San Francisco Opera’s "A Masked Ball.”

'A Masked Ball' is a Verdi treasure

On the night of the San Francisco Giants' epic 18-inning win against the Washington Nationals, San Francisco Opera presented a production of Verdi's 1859 “A Masked Ball,” originally created for the Washington National Opera. Unfortunately, the game and performance overlapped, so there were many furtive glances at smartphones in the audience, held discreetly at lap level.

The production, now owned by S.F. Opera, was first seen here in 2006. It's still in pretty good shape, but what made the Saturday revival premiere special was the illustrious cast.

Soprano Julianna Di Giacomo, a Merola Program alumna from 1999, made an impressive main-stage debut as Amelia. Coveted by King Gustavus (Ramon Vargas), but married to a count who is the king's best friend (Thomas Hampson), Di Giacomo's affecting stage presence in a difficult melodramatic role and her soaring, beautifully modulated voice were celebrated by the audience..

Hampson, with a career that started in the Merola Program in 1980 and has since been acknowledged around the globe, was as strong and sonorous as ever, giving his best to the role of the loyal friend who turns murderous when suspecting his wife's betrayal. Vargas, whose recent appearance here as Faust in “Mefistofele” went from middling at the beginning to outstanding at the end, did the same this time: originally sounding thin and pinched, by the end of the three-hour opera, he appeared rejuvenated — just in time for his death scene.

As the devil-invoking fortune teller Ulrica, another famous Merola alumna (1983), Dolora Zajick, shook the rafters with one of the most powerful mezzo-soprano voices anywhere. It's unfortunate that she appears only in one scene; it would have been good to hear more of her.

In the trouser role of Oscar, Heidi Stober sang sensationally, but hop-skipped around to almost ridiculous excess. Chances are it wasn't her fault, but the director's. Jose Maria Condemi typically moves people around on stage well enough, but often gives in to the temptation to exaggerate: For example, the scene involving the Chief Justice was reminiscent of something out of Gilbert & Sullivan.

Nicola Luisotti conducted the hardworking orchestra well, but inconsistently. Some lyrical passages became almost somnolent, and occasionally forte came across as loudissimo, startling the audience, and prompting giggles.

Above all, of course, there is Verdi's music, written after the wonders of “Rigoletto,” “La Traviata,” and “Il Trovatore,” and before his final and greatest operas. It is music to treasure.

REVIEW

A Masked Ball

Presented by San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Friday, Oct. 13, Oct. 16, Oct. 22; 2 p.m. Oct. 19

Tickets: $25 to $370

Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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