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Placido Domingo may be no one’s idea of an artistic maverick, but it’s hard to deny that the Washington Opera has blossomed under his leadership. OK, so he hires his wife to direct from time to time, and he’s got this jones for zarzuelas. But repertoire, season length, and TV coverage have expanded, musical standards have continued to improve, and Wagner —generally on the do-not-invite list during the Martin Feinstein administration—has regained his seat at the table.

Yet productions of Verdi, almost always disappointing under Feinstein, haven’t improved much under Domingo. (This despite Domingo’s reputation as the Verdi tenor extraordinaire and his association with some striking and movingly rendered Verdi revivals at that mother of all opera houses just a few hours to our north.) It’s good to report, then, that WashOp’s production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera is a winner straight down the line. What’s distressing is how damn long it’s taken for the company to turn out such an intelligent, dramatically cogent staging of a Verdi opera. Oh sure, some of its past productions featured memorable individual performances, striking bits of scenery, directorial concepts that flickered fitfully to life, even entire productions that connected the dots and played the notes competently enough so as not to actively offend. But none of the Verdis seen at WashOp over, say, the last two decades has even begun to suggest the composer’s towering stature as a musico-dramatist.

Most astonishing of all is that this company, which has so successfully embraced the courtly spectacle of Le Cid, the nuanced interplay of Der Rosenkavalier, the realism of Of Mice and Men, and the larger-than-life passions of Pagliacci, has so consistently failed to make those elements register believably in Verdi, that most central of standard-rep composers. WashOp seems to have forgotten the cardinal rule in making Verdi work onstage: Treat his characters like real people, with real problems and real relationships, and all those 19th-century stage conventions and musical structures will take care of themselves.

And that’s just what’s been done in WashOp’s new Ballo—or should I say La Scala’s new Ballo, because the production has been shipped wholesale from Milan? Verdi gave his interpreters a head start on credibility in this particular middle-period masterpiece, centering his plot on cynical politicians, anarchic conspiracies, a covert love triangle, and an assassination. The composer originally set the story in the 18th-century court of King Gustav III, but the Scala team has chosen Verdi’s censor-imposed revision, which changes the Swedish king to a British governor in pre-Revolutionary Boston.

On Dante Ferretti’s splendid, richly detailed colonial sets, and under Gianni Mantovanini’s stark, directional white lighting—sculptural, tellingly evocative of both daylight and moonlight, and as unforgiving as an interrogation lamp—the singers, for the most part, move and behave like ordinary human beings caught in extraordinary circumstances. Film director Liliana (The Night Porter) Cavani and stage director Marina Bianchi (who’s remounting Cavani’s staging for the KenCen) make sure the chorus groups and regroups naturally, without those left-right-cha-cha-cha movements that tend to do not much more than draw attention to their own goofiness. And the principals, who appear emotionally invested in their characters’ plights, are encouraged toward direct audience address during their soliloquizing. If they, on rare occasion, waltz themselves into some old-school, paint-by-numbers opera blocking, that can be excused given the total absence of eye-rolling, arm-flapping, fist-shaking to the heavens, and, worst of all, standing like so many china cabinets and staring, brain-dead, at the conductor.

Verdi filled Ballo’s score with a dizzying number of top-drawer arias and ensembles, most of them with melodies that refuse to leave your head. Indeed, there isn’t a weak or wasted measure in the opera, and several of the introspective numbers flirt with the sort of Shakespearean complexities that would come to characterize more and more of the composer’s later music.

WashOp has assembled a cast well up to the score’s challenges, and—in a refreshing turn of events, given the current paucity of good Verdi tenors—the kudos start with Marcello Giordani. The Sicilian is no stranger to WashOp audiences, having appeared in the company’s Romeo et Juliette and Simon Boccanegra, but he’s retooled his once unwieldy voice and sounds terrific. The lowest notes are, admittedly, dry and unsupported. The middle register, though, is warm and virile, and his clarion high notes ring out with far greater confidence. Looking trimmer and more dashing than in the past, Giordani falls less readily into that deer-in-the-headlights expression that used to be his calling card, and he finds ardor and buoyant wit in the role of the much-loved, much-conspired-against governor, Riccardo, weaving perfectly gauged chuckling into his vocal line in the Ulrica scene.

Ulrica, the fortune teller, is taken by mezzo Elena Zaremba, who’s becoming a hot item on the international opera scene of late. With a punchy, contraltoish chest voice, a just-edgy-enough upper extension, and a deliciously sardonic smile, she coaxes a lot from this brief but showy part. Youngok Shin is equally distinguished as Riccardo’s page, Oscar. Pert and bright-toned, she’s an engaging actress and makes a little gem out of each of her arias.

If his voice is a half-size smaller than those of some better-known Verdi baritones, Stephan Pyatnychko’s grainy, forwardly placed tone is wonderfully apt for the part of Riccardo’s betrayed friend, Renato. He possesses the crucial skill of expressing extreme emotion within a flawlessly sung, unbroken melodic line, and there’s some textbook Verdi singing in his Act 3 denunciation scene with Amelia.

Amelia is the one role given less than full justice. Ines Salazar is a lovely woman, and she remains emotionally connected throughout the evening. Amelia is written, essentially, as a kind of erotic wishbone being fought over by Riccardo and Renato, and it’s no small feat that Salazar earns sympathy for the character without lurching about and beating her breast for two hours. But her soprano is something of a mess, sounding less as if it belongs to a singer in the first flush of youth than to a singer who’s put in 20 years of hard labor. High notes tend toward the squally, the middle practically disappears in places, and there’s a rough gear shift into her chest tones. Thank goodness, though, that she’s able to fine her voice down to a lovely wisp of sound, and her floated, high phrases are quite affecting.

Rounding out the cast, a pair of sepulchral-sounding basses—Vitalij Kowaljow and Julien Robbins—are first-rate as the conspirators Sam and Tom. The chorus sounds its usual healthy, well-blended self. In the pit, Eugene Kohn (who will be replaced by Domingo on April 14 and 20) conducts a very clear-textured, forward-moving reading. But he seems reluctant to let the orchestra thunder except at the very end of the opera. And throughout, his insistent beat has a tendency to straitjacket the soloists in their more lyrically expansive moments.

If you missed the Kirov’s comparably fine staging of Verdi’s Macbeth, try to catch this imported Ballo—especially before most of the cast is changed for the April 17 and 20 performances. It’s proof that an opera can be kept in period yet emerge alive and fresh-minted. A rare oasis of sound Verdi performance, it’s probably the last of its kind we’ll see for a while: WashOp’s sole Verdi offering next season is a big ol’ production of Aida, to be staged at Constitution Hall with computer-generated scenery. My money’s on the elephants as the most compelling Verdians in that show. CP