|Count Almaviva (Seung-Hyeon Baek) and Susanna (Alexa Smith) duke it out|
(photo by Brian E. Long)
Since last night's performance of Mozart's 1786 masterpiece Nozze di Figaro by Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble, we cannot stop singing and humming the master's melodies. Such is the Magic of Mozart! This is the centerpiece of the trilogy and the best known. There is a reason why it is. Not only are we celebrating the marriage of Susanna and Figaro, but the marriage of Mozart and Da Ponte, a match made in music heaven. Da Ponte created some wonderful and complex characters; Mozart composed music that amplifies the characterization.
We were greatly impressed by Seung-Hyeon Baek's performance as the unlikable Count Almaviva who seems to exist to make women miserable. The lovely Countess, whom he so relentlessly pursued in the first Beaumarchais play, is now lonely and neglected as her philandering husband pursues her servant Susanna with importuning and groping, to the dismay of both women.
Mr. Baek has a rich baritone that he employs effortlessly obviating any notice of his technique. He immersed himself so totally in the character that one forgot everything else. Gesture, body movement, and facial expression worked together and was always connected to the moment. This is the kind of theatrical presence that we want to see and hear all the time.
He certainly met his match in the lovely Susanna of Alexa Smith whom we have long admired since Manhattan School of Music and Prelude to Performance. Her lovely soprano was always on target and the character she created was in some ways different from other Susanna's who have blended together in a generic way. Her Susanna was rather more put-upon--not only annoyed by the Count's attentions but also occasionally irritated by Figaro's denseness. This characterization made her more real; what bride has not been a bit tense on her wedding day!
As the Countess Almaviva, we enjoyed the performance of Elizabeth Tredent who created a sad characterization of a cast-off wife in her two major arias "Porgi amor" and "Dove sono". Her scenes with Susanna and Cherubino were enchanting as the companionship seemed to lift her out of her funk. We were glad to see her blossom at the end of the opera as the machinations of Figaro resulted in a rapprochement of sorts with the Count.
Cherubino was well portrayed by Natasha Nelson whose "Non so piu" was marked by appropriate variety of tempi. Her "Voi che sapete" was similarly excellent and was marked by dynamic variety.
Figaro himself was performed by Cole Grissom who had excellent chemistry with Ms. Smith. We have rarely seen such a frisky physical performance; this feature added to the contemporaneous nature of the production. We liked his cavatina "Se vuol ballare", which marked the birth of his antagonism to his master, based on Susanna's reporting of the Count's dishonorable intentions toward her.
Jonathan Dauermann made a sturdy Dr. Bartolo, unpleasant at first but becoming rather benevolent when he learns that Figaro is his son. He handled "La vendetta" very well, especially the rapid patter part.
As his housekeeper Marcellina, Kerry Gotschall made a fine showing, especially in her catty duet with Susanna in which the two women insult one another.
Milan Rakić made a wonderfully slimy gossipy Don Basilio, the troublemaker in the court. Joy Tamazo had the sweet light soprano that makes Barbarina such a delightful character; Michael Spaziani portrayed the gardener Antonio without indulging in drunken antics.
The captivating music was played by the Metamorphosis Chamber Orchestra, conducted by John Spencer, IV. Right from the overture we knew they and we were in good hands. The performance moved right along without a single longueur. In terms of musical values, nothing more could be wanted.
Direction by Eve Summer matched the music-making in tempo. Actions were all well-motivated. A directorial choice was made to set the opera in contemporary times which created a disjunction with the dialogue referencing customs of the 18th c. This did not interfere with our enjoyment but we do feel that better decisions might have been made by Costume Designer Carly Bradt.
Everyone wore street clothes, likely a budgetary issue. We wanted the Count to dress better than his servant. We wanted Cherubino to wear Nike, not espadrilles. The "costumes" probably came out of the performers' closets but better choices might have been made. At least the Countess wore a gold necklace to distinguish her from her servant.
Meganne George's set design was simple but never distracted from the interaction of the characters. Once again, Scott Schneider's lighting design was subtly effective.
The surtitles were better than those usually seen. Karen Rich and Eve Summer are credited. They seemed to give a more complete picture of the subtleties usually glossed over and gave better insight into the characters.
The trilogy continues tonight with the contemporary Rosina by H. Titus. Same venue--the comfortable (but chilly) performance space at Baruch College.
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|Na Young Ban and Ken Harmon (photo by Chris Fecteau)|
Beaumarchais' 1775 play Le Barbier de Séville was adapted by many composers but last night Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble treated us to the Paisiello version which premiered in Russia in 1782. Rossini did not write his version until 1816. It took some time for Rossini's version to eclipse Paisiello's and it is the former that usually provides the delightful belly-laughs for today's audiences. Still, this season we were fortunate enough to hear the latter version twice in one season! Only in New York, as they say.
The Paisiello is well worth hearing for its charming melodies. One cannot help but wonder what might have happened if Rossini had not written his version. It is quite likely that this delightful opera would have been part of every company's repertoire.
The libretto by Giovanni Petrosellini hews closely to the Beaumarchais play and there are only a few differences from the Rossini in the storytelling. The adorable heroine Rosina is still the ward of the controlling Doctor Bartolo who holds her under lock and key. Il Conte d'Almaviva has followed her all the way from Madrid to Seville to court her and, being accustomed to getting what he wants, will find a way to get her.
The wily barber Figaro will help him--for a price, of course. The music teacher Don Basilio also figures in the plot as Doctor Bartolo's ally--until some money changes hands. Beaumarchais has written a comedy, a romance, and social commentary all at once. The only character missing from Petrosellini's libretto is Berta, the housekeeper. Instead we have comic relief from the sleepy and ironically named Lo Svegliato (Vigilance) and the elderly and equally ironically named Giovinetto (Youth).
We were delighted to catch Na Young Ban's sole performance as Rosina. With ample personal charm, a beautiful soprano, and superb Italian diction, Ms. Ban performed the role to perfection. Legato lines were well phrased and the decorations nicely handled. We particularly enjoyed the aria she sings when the Count is pretending to be her music teacher. The B-section is a lament in a minor key with a marvelous bassoon accompaniment.
The Paisiello Rosina is not the spunky Rosina of Rossini but a gentler character. Her love duet with the Count "Caro tu sei il mio ben" was lovely. Ken Harmon made a fine Count and his serenade to Rosina "Saper bramate", with her listening from behind the jalousies, provided a gorgeous tune for his tenor, with accompaniment by lute and flute, as well as horn and strings.
As a matter of fact, everything the Metamorphosis Chamber Orchestra played was perfect with Maestra Daniela Candillari conducting with classical precision, just right for the period. Her harpsichord introduction to Act II was particularly lovely. Special props for Matheus Souza's lute!
Baritone Jay Chacon performed the very important role of Figaro and filled it with fine sound and comedic instincts.
The buffo role of Dr. Bartolo was performed by Jeff Caldwell who created a character right out of commedia dell'arte. The trio "Giusto cielo" was excellently sung by Ms. Ban, Mr. Harmon, and Mr. Caldwell. Bass Rodolfo Nieto made a fine Don Basilio singing a different "La calunnia" than we are accustomed to in the Rossini.
William Mulligan and Colin Whiteman as Giovinetto and Lo Svegliato respectively had a very funny sneezing scene in harmony.
Stage Director Emilie Rault kept things moving along and gave each character enough motivation to sustain the story. Meganne George's Scenic Design was simple but effective. The chamber orchestra occupied the right side of the wide playing space of the Nagelberg Theater at Baruch College, and the action took place mainly on a bi-level set. Folding screens served as backdrop and shutters. It was up to the singers to mime the opening and shutting and locking of doors. Lighting Design by Scott Schneider enhanced the effect.
If there was a sole shortcoming of the production it would be the costumes which left us scratching our head in puzzlement. We could not fathom why the singers had gems, pearls, flowers and tiles pasted on their faces, nor why Don Basilio's face was painted green.
The clothes made no sense whatsoever. Even when the Count is supposed to disguise himself as a military man, there was no suggestion of military attire. We learned after the performance that Costume Designer Carly Bradt was going for a Gaudí look. The opera takes place in Seville, not in Barcelona and architecture is not a good partner with clothing.
We are eager to follow Rosina's progress tomorrow night in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. She will, by then, be wed to the Count and treated with indifference. Does life imitate art or vice versa?
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|Olivia Betzen and Sean Kroll|
What an interesting concept to program a season whose theme was inspired by the writings of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais! The excellent Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble generally comes up with a highly worthwhile summer season. The program is always a win-win situation.
Young singers in the early stages of their careers get everything they need to advance to the next level. They profit by coaching and collaboration, intense role preparation involving not only singing but dramatics, stage deportment, diction, and whatever else it takes to bridge the gap between academic training and flourishing career. All at no charge!
But the audience benefits as well. One can purchase low-priced tickets and enjoy high-value entertainment. Productions are often conceived with originality and flair. Take, for example, last nights concert which celebrated the characters created by Beaumarchais. For the rest of this week, we will be reviewing Paisiello's Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, and Titus' Rosina. Something familiar, something unfamiliar, and something treasured since we started attending opera.
But the scenes and arias presented last night will not be heard again this season because they were selected to highlight the characters rather than the operas that we will be hearing. It was a broad ranging program which included some spoken dialogue from Beaumarchais' plays as well as music from the operas based on those plays.
We heard some fine voices that we will look forward to hearing more of for the next three nights. The results of the artists' hard work was quite evident. Everyone sang well and the diction, even in English, was well above average.
There were a few scenes that stood out. Chief among them was Jay Chacon's performance of "Ja för fan det" from Inger Wikstrom's Den Brottslige Moderne. We are completely unfamiliar with this opera but online search reveals only that it was composed in 1939 and the composer is a Swedish woman. It was a captivating performance and we will search further when the season ends and we have time. The aria was melodic and intense. The vocal line followed the Swedish language in a way that contemporary American composers seem to be unable to achieve.
We also heard arias from Massenet's Chérubin which we have never seen performed. Elizabeth Bouk sang "Je suis gris" with high spirits and fine bright sound. Alessandra Altieri sang "Lorsque vous n'aurez rien à faire" from the same opera in fine French. But our personal favorite was the Spanish inflected "Vive amour" sung by Ashley Alden.
Selections were heard also from John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles. Christopher Lilley impressed with his powerful voice and cynical attitude in "The Aria of the Worm". He was equally repellent (dramatically) in "Bégearss and the Revolutionary Women".
From Rossini's version of the Barber of Seville, we heard "La calunnia" well sung by bass Michael Spaziani --cheek by jowl with Mozart's "In quegli anni" sung by Korland Simmons, a tenor with a nice ring to his voice. How interesting that the two composers conceived of the character of Don Basilio in such disparate fachs!.
We did not relate to Darius Milhaud's "La mère coupable"; this will not go down in our book as an opera we are dying to see!
But Rossini's magical sextet "Freddo ed immobile" always tickles us. The entire evening was directed by Desiree Alejandro with Jeremy Weissmann as pianist and music director.
We are very much looking forward to hearing all these excellent young artists for the next three nights. The performance space has excellent sight lines and acoustics. Check it out! Nagelberg Theater at Baruch College. Very worth your while!
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|Anna Christy and Alek Shrader in Fille du Regiment at the Santa Fe Opera (photo by Ken Howard)|
Santa Fe Opera's production of Gaetano Donizetti's Fille du Regiment hit all the right notes, and Alek Shrader in the role of Tonio hit all the high notes, the ones we heard him sing some years ago when he won the Metropolitan Opera National Council award. His warm and funny performance was matched by Anna Christy, appealing as the tomboy Marie who counted an entire regiment as her collective father.
Ned Canty's direction was delightful, milking every ounce of humor from the story without overlooking the brief periods of melancholy. Physical humor was much in evidence with Mr. Shrader portraying Tonio as a bumbling hick who can't keep from tripping over his own feet. Mr. Shrader's instrument is not a large one but he uses it well and is a marvelously appealing performer. But the major share of humor came from the hilarious performance of bass Kevin Burdette whose Sergeant Sulpice outdid any of the comedy greats of the silent film epoch.
Mr. Canty not only emphasized the humor but also the pathos by including plentiful spoken dialogue; this served to illuminate the circumstances of the characters in a way previously shortchanged. We felt we really got to know the characters and to care about them.
Ms. Christy's skill at bel canto singing is impressive. Her instrument has a sweet childlike quality and a great deal of tonal clarity. The fioritura was dazzling in its accuracy and organic in its relationship to the text and the emotions. The colors in her voice changed in the sad "Il faut partir" at the end of Act I, eliciting ample sympathy for her plight.
Mr. Shrader is also capable of coloring his voice and although "Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fete" is the opera's hit tune with it's nine high C's, we enjoyed his "Depuis l'instant, dans mes bras" in Act I and his persuasive Hail Mary pass for Marie's hand in Act II.
As the Marquise of Berkenfeld, a name which Sulpice persisted in amusingly mispronouncing, mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella was haughty at first in "Pour une femme de mon nom" but became warm and likable by the end when she relents and accepts her daughter's marriage to Tonio instead of to the favored aristocrat.
Apprentice bass Calvin Griffin again impressed us with his voice and dramatic abilities as he portrayed Hortensius, the Marquise's Major-domo--typically contemptuous of the French army but indulgent toward the Marquise. His scene at the chateau, where Sulpice is spending months recovering from a battle injury, had us in stitches as he sank into passive-aggressive behavior involving a wine bottle.
Once again we were thrilled by the performance of the apprentices in the chorus, under the direction of Susanne Sheston. The women enacted the Tyrolean citizens praying for deliverance from the French in Act I and in Act II the guests at the Chateau who were amusingly announced by Hortensius. The men portraying the regiment of French soldiers sounded marvelous in their regimental song.
In the pit Maestra Speranza Scappucci led a spirited performance of Donizetti's tuneful music. Much of the overture was in march time but there were plenty of lyrical moments and the conducting kept up the pace.
The opera takes place during the Napoleonic wars but there appears to be no bloodshed and the French regiment seems particularly kind to the Tyroliean natives whose land they are occupying. The praying natives have nothing to fear!
Scenic and Costume Design by Allen Moyer was delightful. In Act I, the villagers have erected a monumental pile of furniture as a barrier and in Act II, the Marquise's chateau is on a revolving stage which showed the front of the chateau and also the room behind the door where Marie gets her very funny singing lesson. The Marquise has been trying to overcome Marie's rustic and tomboyish nature to make an aristocratic lady out of her. The efforts are doomed to failure because the influence of her army upbringing has been just too strong. This is symbolized by her breaking into the regimental songs (encouraged by Sulpice) during her singing lesson.
The soldiers' uniforms are exactly what one would wish for--colorful and accurate to the 1830's. The Marquise's costume is in the newer Empire style, whereas the elderly Duchess of Krakenthorp (a spoken role portrayed by a bewigged and powdered Judith Christin) is dressed in the style of the late 18th c., revealing just how elderly and old-fashioned she is.
Donizetti tossed off this "trifle" (HA!) in a very short period of time; it had its premiere in 1840 and we are still loving the story and the characters and the music nearly two centuries later. Contemporary composers labor for years over operas that we see once and forget about. What's wrong with this picture?
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|Alex Penda as Salome at Santa Fe Opera (photo by Ken Howard)|
We have always thrilled to Richard Strauss' 1905 opera Salome but the current production at the Santa Fe Opera offered a fresh and Freudian interpretation by director Daniel Slater that kept us on the edge of our seat. Mr. Slater chose to set the opera at the turn of the 20th c. when Freud's ideas about sexuality and the unconscious were still new and shocking but not yet accepted. The titular character is revealed by some innovative staging to have observed her father's murder at the hands of her uncle Herod, the same tetrarch who now lusts for her.
This is a family right out of Krafft-Ebing. The lascivious tetrarch Herod makes no secret of his lust for his niece. Salome's mother is unsuccessful at reining him in. She believes that Salome wants Jochanaan's head out of loyalty to her because he has been cursing her from his place of imprisonment. It is not difficult to believe that Oscar Wilde penned the scandalous story on which the opera is based.
The air is heavy with lust. Herod, Salome, and Naraboth, captain of the guard, are all passionate about beauty. Herod and Naraboth are both driven wild with desire for Salome who is similarly driven wild by lust for Jochanaan who is passionate only about his religious beliefs. Her perceived rejection by the prophet leads her to the final mad request for his head. Hell hath no fury, as they say!
The Dance of the Seven Veils, in Mr. Slater's version, has no veils and no nudity. Salome dances for her father using mainly her graceful arms in a most seductive way. Part of the way through the dance, her mind drifts to her childhood memories of Herod murdering her father and leading her away. (Shades of Hamlet!) Although this is a directorial innovation, it seems right there in the music.
In the role of Salome, Alex Penda shines like the star that she is. She is sufficiently petite in form to convince as an adolescent with a powerful soprano that cuts right through Strauss' sizable orchestra.
As Herod, tenor Robert Brubaker tackled the high-lying tessitura without strain and injected his character with a real personality--not a sympathetic one but an interesting one. He is clearly at odds with his wife Herodias; he is a bit frightened but also fascinated by Jochanaan and his preaching while Herodias is offended by Jochanaan's attacks on her and wants him eliminated. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens fulfilled her role in a most believable way. This is a marriage like many we have seen in contemporary times, a marriage in which husband and wife barely tolerate one another
Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny made a swell Jochanaan with his resonant portentous instrument. He does not appear as a filthy starving prisoner chained in a cistern, but rather an intellectual writing at a desk in a room of the palace. This of course goes a long way toward helping us understand Salome's attraction to his white skin, black hair and red lips.
The opera opens with tenor Brian Jagde as Captain of the Guard mooning over "die Prinzessin Salome". Pun intended. He compares her to the moon. Page Megan Marino tries to talk him out of it. He kills himself when he realizes that she is lusting after the prophet and not him. Mr. Jagde's singing was filled with luster and passion; we were sorry to lose him so early in the opera!
Just as Shakespeare provided comic relief in his tragedies, Salome provided a few giggles in the form of five Jews arguing theology. We were delighted to see several of our favorite apprentices in these roles: Christopher Trapani, Roy Hage, Cullen Gandy, Aaron Short, and Kevin Thompson. Nicholas Brownlee and Tyler Putnam appeared as soldiers.
We could not have asked for a better conductor than David Robertson who captured the passionate sweep of Strauss' thrilling music. Although this opera scandalized audiences at the time of it's premiere, it established Strauss' career as a composer of operas. The work has earned its place in the canon.
Set and Costume Design by Leslie Travers worked out well. We particularly liked Salome's virginal white dress and Herodias' elaborate gown. The men all wore military uniforms, replete with sashes, epaulettes and emblems. This only struck us as peculiar on the bodies of the five Jews! Who knew that Jews were so honored in fin de siecle Austria!
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|Isabel Leonard and Nathan Gunn in Cold Mountain at Santa Fe Opera (photo by Ken Howard for SFO)|
You read Charles Frazier's best-selling novel. You saw the movie with Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, and Renee Zellweger. Do you want to see the opera premiering this season at the Santa Fe Opera? Yes, you do! You want to hear mezzo-sopranos Isabel Leonard and Emily Fons create the roles of Ada Monroe and Ruby Thewes, two characters who bond in sisterhood and change each other's lives for the better. You want to hear baritone Nathan Gunn as the war-weary defector W.P. Inman and you want to hear tenor Jay Hunter Morris as the slimy villain Teague. They were as excellent dramatically as they were vocally.
Will you want to see this opera a second time? Probably not. And why is that? Like so many contemporary operas in English, the language itself has not inspired award-winning composer Jennifer Higdon to write any memorable vocal lines, indeed, not any melody whatsoever. And what is opera without melody? A play with music is what it is. We were reminded of the soundtrack of a film. We have only good things to say about Ms. Higdon's instrumental writing which is highly textured and interesting. Even in its dissonant passages illuminating battles, it is accessible. But the vocal lines are strictly conversational and without lyricism. They might as well have been spoken.
We sensed a number of missed opportunities. When Pangle and Storbrod appeared onstage with a banjo, we became all excited, hoping that Ms. Higdon would have chosen an unorthodox path by including a banjo in the orchestra and by employing some folk tunes indigenous to that part of the South. No such luck! And when apprentice soprano Chelsea Basler (in an excellent performance as Sarah) sang to her baby, her vocal line did not even begin to suggest a lullabye, although we heard some lovely sounds coming from the harp. When the group of men-starved young women (beautifully sung and acted by apprentices Heather Phillips, Shabnam Kalbasi, Megan Marino, and Bridgette Gan) try to seduce Inman and Veasy (Roger Honeywell), we longed for more seductive music. We were thinking of the Rhinemaidens!
Miguel Harth-Bedoya's conducting cannot be faulted and the orchestra sounded crisp and clear. The chorus sang magnificently, as usual, under the direction of Susanne Sheston. We particularly enjoyed the chorus of dead soldiers at the end which was quite moving.
Dramatically, everything worked. Leonard Foglia's effective direction had us experiencing Ada and Ruby's hardship on the home front in alternation with Inman's frightening and tortuous efforts to evade the Home Guard and come home to the waiting Ada. Librettist Gene Scheer wrote some fine texts that added to the drama and hewed closely to the spirit of the novel.
The scenic design by Robert Brill was a chaotic jumble of wooden planks, appearing somewhat dangerous for the artists, but fortunately there were no mishaps. The set worked best when some planks were repurposed as a boat in which Inman is crossing a river, a boat which sank. David C. Woolard's costumes were superb, giving us a good picture of the stylish but helpless Charleston lady that Ada had been and the capable farm woman she became under Ruby's tutelage and exhortation.
As a matter of fact, the relationship between the two women was more interestingly portrayed than Ada's relationship with Inman. For the latter, there is only a brief scene of their meeting and then their final ill-fated reunion for which we yearned to hear a more lyrical and tender duet. (This parallels the construction of the novel, of course.) Still we were intrigued by the idea that two very different women could form such a loving and worthwhile bond. Ada teaches Ruby to read and to appreciate some of the finer things in life while Ruby teaches Ada to be independent and strong.
As Ruby's father Storbrod, bass Kevin Burdette turned in his usual fine performance. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris not only sang magnificently as Teague, but created a character of menace who chilled us to the bone.
The Civil War was indeed a disgraceful event in our nation's history and, after a century and a half has passed, we observe that the wounds have still not healed. That makes the topic eminently suitable for a great American opera. Our dismay over the evils of war will always be relevant to contemporary times. The topic of damaged lives strikes very close to home as we deal with veterans of wars in the Middle East. So this is a valid subject for operatic treatment. We only wish that the music had reflected our musical history as well.
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|QuinnKelsey and Georgia Jarman (photo credit: Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera|
It was indeed a "buona notte" at the Santa Fe Opera when a perfect storm of casting and direction created a Rigoletto to Remember. Although there was no actual weather event as there was five years ago here, when Mother Nature provided real live lightning and thunder for Act III, there were fireworks aplenty onstage.
Baritone Quinn Kelsey's portrayal of the eponymous character was both chilling and moving. Like every other character in this work, his complexity was captured by the artist and one couldn't help but think of Shakespeare's characters, always so multidimensional. Warped in body and spirit, Rigoletto expresses his rage at his condition by verbally attacking the courtiers comprising the court of the licentious Duke of Mantua--provoking, embarrassing and humiliating them under the protection of the Duke. But he has a soft and tender side as well, expressed in his duets with his lovely daughter Gilda. Mr. Quinn's rich baritone and expressive skills worked as well in his mocking mood as they did in his tender scenes with Gilda.
Gilda is also a complex character. She is the very incarnation of innocence, having been sheltered from the world by her overprotective father. She too has another side. She hides some very essential facts from her father and lies about the fact that she has been oourted by the Duke himself in the guise of a poor student named Gualtier Malde. Soprano Georgia Jarman used her gorgeous instrument and consummate phrasing to show the tender caring of daughter for father in their duets together. Her admirable coloratura skills were employed for her flights of fioritura in the famous aria "Caro nome". Her prodigious vocal skills were complemented by total immersion in her character. We believed her and cared about her.
The Duke is a more consistent character, imbued as he is with licentiousness and depravity. But the tenor assigned this challenging role, Bruce Ledge, needs to hide his true character and convince Gilda that he is a poor student feeling the most honorable feelings toward her. Yet Verdi's music tells us everything we need to know about this scumbag. Ledge delivered his "Questa o quella" and "La donna e mobile" with the same spirit as that with which he tossed women onto the floor.
As Sparafucile, the hired assassin who is too ethical (!) to cheat a client, bass Peixin Chen made a fine chilling appearance and, as his sister Maddalena, mezzo-soprano Nicole Piccolomini made a fine showing with one of the most powerful voices we have heard recently in this fach. It was easy to see how she could overpower her reluctant brother in her wish to spare the life of the Duke, who has managed to work his seductive magic on her as well.
Gilda's caretaker Giovanna, sung by mezzo Anne Marie Stanley, was given an unusual emphasis. She was portrayed as a poor wretch, hungry enough to lick the crumbs off Rigoletto's plate. Her resentment toward her master was so great that she not only betrayed him by accepting bribes from the Duke but also from the courtiers who abducted her charge. To add insult to injury, before her treachery can be punished, she gathers her few belongings, spits on her master and runs off.
Baritone Jarrett Ott stood out as a fine Marullo, one of the courtiers, and veteran Robert Pomakov's sturdy base lent emphasis to the aristocratic Count Monterone whose daughter (Andrea Nunez) has been disgraced by the Duke. Bass Calvin Griffin was fine as Count Ceprano whose wife, portrayed by Shabnam Kalbasi, is also in the Duke's sights. It is always a pleasure for us to see and hear so many fine young artists getting a chance to shine onstage.
Musical values were superb all around with Maestro Jader Bignamini leading a propulsive account of Verdi's score. The evening seemed to fly by all too quickly but never felt rushed. The fine points of Verdi's orchestration were fully realized. Today's audience would scarcely believe that this major hit from Verdi's middle period (premiered in 1851) was perceived as revolutionary in its compositional innovations and was also subject to great difficulties from the Austrian censors who were occupying the north of Italy. They saw Francesco Maria Piavi's libretto (adapted from Victor Hugo's play "Le roi s'amuse"), as highly immoral.
We could just imagine how they might have reacted to Director Lee Blakeley version of 2015! He chose to set the work in the period of The Risorgimento, Verdi's own time, also the time of the Counter-Reformation and the Restoration of the Catholic Church. In Blakeley's version, the court is wildly lascivious and seems to be in full orgy mode at all times. Along the same lines, Sparafucile's tavern is actually a brothel with Maddalena performing sexual duties along with other "sex workers". Although one might interpret this as overkill, the concept did work as a manifestation of extreme depravity.
Other directors have updated the work from the 16th c. There was a Mafia version by Jonathan Miller, there was the Doris Dorrie version set on the Planet of the Apes (!) , the Linda Brovsky version set in Mussolini's fascist Italy, the Las Vegas version by Michael Mayer and, most recently, Lindy Hume's version set in Berlusconi's paparazzi-driven world. For our taste, Mr. Blakeley's version suits us best. We can believe that Monterone's curse la maledizione was received with credulity and fear during that period, but not in the 20th c. We are waiting for a version set in Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion so we can howl with laughter.
We found the Scenic and Costume Design by Adrian Linford to be a bit distracting and unsatisfying. A rather undersized revolving stage permitted the audience to see the court, Rigoletto's house and Sparafucile' tavern in rapid succession. This made for a speedy evening without lengthy intermissions and kept the drama moving forward. But the set itself was crowded and puzzling. Why would the Duke tolerate threadbare furniture? Why is everything atilt? There was an overall emphasis on poverty: Giovanna seems to be starving and Sparafucile is dressed in rags like a hobo. Some characters are dressed according to the mid 19th c. and others seem to be wearing contemporary streetwear.
In sum, the Santa Fe Opera has mounted a real winner that scored well in the areas we value most highly--Verdi's tuneful yet character-driven music given its full due, and the high level of characterization and drama that led us to experience the involvement we so greatly appreciate.The casting was astute; the singers all had fine voices and enacted characters one could believe. The chorus, comprising apprentices directed by Susanne Sheston, added enormously to the musical value and to the drama.
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