Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Review of "Rigoletto" at the Opera Company of Philadelphia, published in Edge Philadelphia

Dramatically, the story of Rigoletto has everything to recommend it. Francesco Piave closely based his libretto on a play by Victor Hugo, whose theme consists of curse-spewing vengeance (fulfilled, no less), larger than life characters including a hunchback, assassin, and a philandering Duke, and a tightly woven plot centered on seduction, filial love, and revenge.

Musically, Verdi achieves a minor perfection to match, with the Duke’s easily recognizable arias and the tender songs of devotion offset by the dark intensity of Rigoletto’s anguish stricken numbers, not to mention one of the most engaging quartets in the genre. Little surprise that Verdi’s work ranks as the ninth most performed opera in America.

Verdi’s opera opens on the Duke of Mantua candid pursuit of the wife of one of his courtiers, a fellow noble named Ceprano. The Duke’s jester Rigoletto suggests simply imprisoning Ceprano, which the Duke considers before he’s interrupted by the appearance of Monterone, whose daughter the Duke had earlier seduced. While Rigoletto mocks, Monterone vows revenge, and the Duke sentences to death this potential threat to his libertinism, but not before Monterone puts a curse on both the Duke and Rigoletto.

Fearing Rigoletto’s influence, Ceprano and the court abduct Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda (they believe she is his mistress). Unbeknownst to them, the Duke has been disguising himself as a poor student in order to see Gilda on the sly, resisting his possibly true feelings of love while deceiving her into loving him nonetheless. When the courtiers bring her to the Duke’s palace, Rigoletto swears revenge, and hires the assassin Sparafucile to kill the Duke, after which he and Gilda can escape to neighboring Verona. Little of these competing plans come to fruition, as fate cruelly intervenes at the cross purposes of human action to ensure the tragedy and fulfill Monterone’s curse.

Musically, this is the best production I’ve seen at the Opera of Philadelphia since their 2003 Il Trovatore, largely due to the company premiere of Israeli born soprano Chen Reiss in the role of Gilda.

Matthew Polenzani, the much-hyped tenor playing the Duke, sings beautifully the solo arias that everyone loves in this opera (Questa o quella, La Donna e mobile), with his honey-toned voice so charming to hear that I didn’t even mind how softly the orchestra played underneath his singing.

Yet he’s exceptional when singing with Reiss, as she brings out of him not only more volume, but also the most pleasing aspects of his voice, particularly in the flourishes (the “Adio” runs) that end their first scene together.

Alan Opie‘s Rigoletto gravelly baritone proves capable, if not outstanding, expressing his anguish more through his pained expressions and tantrums of rage than in his singing. Kirk Eichelberger looms over the stage powerfully as the Duke-cursing Monterone, and Dimitrie Lazich‘s Marullo, and particularly Julian Rodescu‘s Sparafucile admirably round out this cast.

However, the evening’s real delight emanated from Reiss’ flawless, brilliantly controlled, beautifully sung performance. Beyond her exquisite coloratura, she made comprehensible to me (for the first time out of the half-dozen or so productions of this opera I’ve seen) the motivations why her character would sacrifice herself to such a lecher as the Duke.

Here, her singing proves all the difference—portraying a caged lament when paired with Rigoletto, contrasted strongly against the happiness of a moment’s freedom and the joyful exuberance of first love that her voice conveys when singing with the Duke. She makes the choice of options so visibly (audibly, really) clear that her fatal choice almost seems obvious.

(Ms Reiss, thank you for clearing up the only problem I’ve ever had with your character’s motivations in this opera. Now, if someone could finally show me why Sparafucile abandons his otherwise proud assassin’s duty…)

Dramatically, the new production suffered, though not from any aspects of the visually opulent staging. No sooner did the anguish-driven overture end than the curtain raised upon a palatial revelry brought to life by jugglers, ballerinas, clowns, and courtiers, all resplendently bedecked in Richard St. Clair’s costumes, right down to a Duke entirely clad in the devil’s red. Paul Shortt’s set design impresses by sheer enormity, notably the massive Rubenesque-styled painting that depicts an abduction (after his Leucippus, rather than his Sabine Women) which hangs over the entrance to the Duke’s chambers in Act II.

Yet (maybe because of all this) Robert B. Driver’s direction somehow manages to underscore the dark and tragic aspects of the story. Granted, the extremity of the tragic impact only comes in the very last scene (enhanced superbly by Drew Billiau’s lighting), but for a opera which contains a forced abduction, judicial murders, a curse, multiple currents of revenge, and deep moments of shame, nothing seems dark, and none of the negative emotions seem effectively conveyed by the production. Nothing made this lack more evident than when the audience laughed after Sparafucile told his sister to “mend the sack” in which he plans to put the corpse of his next victim (in addition to their laughter during several other nasty moments in the plot).

Not that Verdi’s opera could ever achieve a happy ending. Rigoletto, who proudly exclaims, “Let the world behold the Jester and the King,” gets a comeuppance undeserved by any figure in tragedy, while the only innocent figure in the piece suffers irreparably.

Yet Rigoletto stands as one of the more powerful and penetrating operas written, and the opportunity to see this piece in a musically beautiful new production marks a reason for opera loving Philadelphians to rejoice. My only hope: that the Opera Company of Philadelphia will plan their future seasons around more opportunities for Ms. Reiss to perform here.

An absolute must see.

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