(This review was written by American-Statesman freelance critic Luke Quinton.)
Newly rebranded, Austin Opera celebrated the opening of its 2014-14 season this weekend, with Verdi’s “A Masked Ball,” and threw in pre-concert singing alongside some digital art on the Long Center’s pavillion. But the digital art that really mattered was a set of all-digital projections, a collaboration between the University of Texas Theater and Dance students and noted Opera designer Wendall Harrington.
First, though it’s worth noting that the Long Center is a bank-vault of acoustic engineering. With Fun Fest’s three raucous stages in Butler Park next door, not a drop of Nas (or any other headliner) leaked in.
The sounds inside were crisp and clearly led under direction of Richard Buckley, beginning his eleventh season in Austin.
But when the curtain came up, all eyes were on the three-surfaced digital set, projecting both still, and moving, images on a huge scale. The strikingly clear opening image, out-of-focus masses moving down crowded escalators, gave way into a familiar Capitol dome and a rotunda, populated on stage by buzzing governmental workers — all clothed in monochromatic grey suits.
Of the libretto, rarely has so much been sung about so little: a love triangle between a politician, Riccardo (Dominick Chenes) and the wife of his best friend, Renato (Michael Chioldi).
Voices are solid and will please fans throughout the run, notably Mardi Byers as Amelia, with a lovely aria “Morro Ma Prima” alongside a moving cello part, and Chioldi (a last-minute substitution for an ill Jason Howard), with a whiskey-rich baritone. Austin favorite, soprano Sara Ann Mitchell is charming in the trouser role of Oscar.
The story’s minimalism extends into a spare set. Between a chorus that does quite a bit of standing (amid some strong singing) and the 2D projections, there was something of a void. Contemporary costumes and rows of aluminum chairs don’t do much to transport an audience in the same way more physically-minded sets, more elaborate costumes and props help guide us into another time and place. It doesn’t all have to be the sparks and stone wheel of “Turandot,” but that visual activity keeps the story moving along.
The projection certainly had its moments. Three clowns pop out to perfectly timed “sforzandos,” and dark, moonlit clouds move eerily in the background as we visit Ulrica, the fortune teller.
Yet the brief appearance of the Texas Capitol is enough to incite longing for an updated libretto. Performers in contemporary clothes walk the stage and wield handguns, but what’s so scandalous about visiting a fortune teller that it’s a valid plot point to actually consider exiling her from the country?
The originally story was touchy enough with current events that Verdi was forced to move its plot away from Europe, to Boston. The hints of contemporary life here make one pine for actual political intrigue and relatable emotional scenarios, as opposed to an opera that sounds like the 1700s but looks like today.
“A Masked Ball” continues 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13 and 3 p.m. Nov. 16. www.austinopera.org