After more than 150 years, Rigoletto remains a powerful opera. The characters continue to resonate through the ages because of the universality of their situations and their all too human qualities. In a now legendary production for the English National Opera in 1983, director Jonathan Miller moved the opera from Sixteenth Century Mantua to Little Italy in New York in the mid-Twentieth Century. The story was transformed into an operatic equivalent of the film The Godfather. Audiences loved it and so did the critics.
At the age of thirty-eight, Verdi had already written thirteen operas. He was a well-established and experienced man of the theater and on the verge of writing the operas which would make him a figure of international renown.
Based on a play by Victor Hugo, Verdi’s opera Rigoletto was an unlikely choice for a composer in quest of a major success, and succeeded almost in spite of itself. At its opening in 1851, many found it “repulsive and brutal”; others recognized the originality of the music and the depth of characterization. For a general audience there were several hit “tunes”:“Questa o quella” and “La donna è mobile” for the tenor and “Caro nome” for the soprano. All three quickly became famous showstoppers.
Vintage Rigoletto Resonates with Contemporay Audience
In the current Austin Lyric Opera (ALO) production at the Long Center, director Kay Walker Castaldo gives us vintage Rigoletto, as traditional a production as you are likely to see anywhere – with sets from the Cincinnati Opera and costumes from the Minnesota Opera. Castaldo’s straightforward, but compelling production is proof that the greatest operas do not need to be updated to speak to contemporary audiences. What they do need is careful preparation and a team of dedicated artists. Fortunately, for Austin audiences, such a team was assembled by ALO general director Kevin Patterson, and the results are extraordinary.
Captivating Performances and Superb Ensembles
All three principals in the cast – baritone Todd Thomas (Rigoletto), tenor Chad Shelton (the Duke of Mantua), and soprano Lyubov Petrova (Gilda) – were making their Austin debuts in this production, and each one of them emerged triumphant.
Most impressive of all was Petrova, a young Russian-born singer obviously on the verge of a major career. She made her debut at the Met in 2001 and has sung a variety of roles there since, but she has also been building her repertoire through appearances at many of the regional opera companies in the U.S.
As Gilda, Petrova not only had total command of the coloratura requirements of the role, but also demonstrated remarkable control of phrasing and volume. In the opera’s final scene, as she lies dying, she makes a diminuendo on a long held note that is simply amazing, both in terms of musicianship and characterization.
Let it be said too, that Petrova was very much a team player in this production. She has star quality, but took great care to blend her sound in the great Quartet into the whole, and interacted beautifully in scenes with her father, Rigoletto. Their Act 2 duet was extraordinarily moving.
In the title role of Rigoletto, Todd Thomas vividly conveyed both the bitterness of this wretched man and his overwhelming love for his daughter. His voice was consistently strong and expressive, and his acting skills helped to heighten and move the drama forward.
The Duke of Mantua gets some of the most crowd-pleasing music in the opera, but he remains the villain of the piece and a thoroughly despicable human being. From the opening scene, Chad Shelton established himself as arrogant and nasty and tossed off his demanding music with aplomb. In “La donna è mobile” his top notes were a little thin, but otherwise his vocal work was very good.
Castaldo’s Direction and Buckley’s Conducting Empower Cast and Orchestra
In a traditional production such as this, the director’s work often goes unnoticed, but clearly Castaldo had a great deal to do with how the singers moved and interacted with one another. In this opera, exaggeration is the road to ruin. The piece is already melodrama and restraint pays great dividends. Wild gestures or gratuitous sobbing come across as superficial. I suspect it was Castaldo who kept things under control in this production, encouraging the performers to call up emotions from within themselves, inspired by Verdi’s music.
And that brings us to the man who really made it all work - conductor Richard Buckley. It is a pleasure to watch a master at work and Buckley is certainly that. He knows this music from a lifetime of experience, and in rehearsal he is obviously a stern taskmaster. The musical preparation was obvious in the near-impeccable work of the chorus and in the fantastic playing of the orchestra.
Buckley unleashed the power of Verdi’s score. He spun out the beautiful long lines and he accompanied the singers with an uncanny feeling for the perfect balance between voices and orchestra. He obviously loves the score and revels in its inspired oddities; for example, the strangeness of the solo cello and solo double bass in the chilling scene between Rigoletto and the assassin Sparafucile, and the wordless chromatic choral writing which gives the final scene much of its horror.
Puzzling Act 1 Scene 2 Set Raises Distracting Questions
Sets and costumes were generally very good, especially in Act 3 (an inn near the river), but the set for Rigoletto’s house and Ceprano’s estate (Act 1, scene 2), I found puzzling. We need to get a sense that Gilda is being held in confinement by her father; instead, she appeared to be living in some kind of enormous palace. Perhaps court jesters in Mantua were doing rather well after all, but such a suggestion undercuts the story. Frankly, I couldn’t tell which was Rigoletto’s place and which was Ceprano’s, and it does matter to the sense of the opera.
The cutaway wall facing the audience also troubled me. The walls are cut away to enable us to see inside rooms and courtyards, and yet characters were still allowed to use that cutaway as a walkway on and off stage. It just didn’t work for me.
Long Center Acoustics Work for Opera!
In some recent Austin Symphony Orchestra reviews, I have complained about the acoustics in the Long Center. When an orchestra is playing in the pit rather than on the stage, however, I must testify that the acoustics are wonderful. I sat in the tenth row of the Orchestra section for this production, and the sound was ideal. The instruments and voices all projected well, and the balances were excellent. The timbres of the various instruments were natural and full, and one could hear a very wide range of dynamics. I have heard three Austin Lyric Opera productions in the Long Center – each time from a different location – and have had the same general impression. Not a thing needs to be changed for the opera acoustics, but I would advise the Austin Symphony to experiment with different seating, perhaps bringing the orchestra further forward on the stage to give the sound a livelier presence in the hall.
Vision, Imagination and Box Office Savvy
Finally, I cannot praise enough the great work general director Kevin Patterson is doing in bringing quality opera productions to Austin. These are tough economic times, and by all accounts they may get even tougher. If anybody can keep the ALO’s head above water, I am confident that it is Kevin Patterson. He obviously chooses repertoire with an eye on the box office, but often gives it a different angle - as in the Austin-oriented Die Fledermaus or the Hollywood-themed La Cenerentola. Even overly-familiar operas gain enormously from the choice of exciting new talents such as Lyubov Petrova. And finally, this season, the ALO was able to give its patrons a new hall, which turns out to be excellent for opera. Kevin Patterson certainly knows how to put it all together.
Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at http://www.amazon.com.
Photos by Mark Matson: Rigoletto and Gilda; Rigoletto; Richard Buckley
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