The fourth hunchback is the charm
Rigoletto ain’t pretty. Sorry to be so blunt. But for pretty, go to later Verdi calling cards, the likes of La Traviata, A Masked Ball, Otello. This trio alone could make “pretty” blush by comparison.
Not so, Rigoletto. It’s a black hole of irony, curses, revenge and tragedy from which little light or life can escape.
It’s also a slam-dunk season-opener if ever there were one. It’s an obvious choice if Palm Beach Opera wanted to walk on the wild side for its first production of 2008-09. And Saturday night’s second cast positively wallowed in the mud-slinging, wading waist-deep in the seedy side of humanity.
As luck would have it, the full house at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach heard not a cast of young or emerging artists as is usual on Saturdays and Mondays. Instead, it starred the outstanding veteran Todd Thomas as Rigoletto, the hunchbacked court jester.
Baritone Thomas understands theater, stagecraft and acting at a level approached by few singers, even among opera’s illuminati. Each of his gestures defined a facet of the story or the mood, the character or the music. Combine Thomas’ knack for distraught facial expressions and lighting director Donald Edmund Thomas’ precisely timed down-spots, and an agonized moment would be captured as graphically as Han Solo frozen in carbonite in The Return of the Jedi.
Vocally, Thomas was a rock throughout – he’s in nearly every scene of the three-hour, twenty-minute production. But if vocal beauty wasn’t always his forte, emotional power and character development were. Between Thomas metaphorically piling up the kindling on stage and artistic director Bruno Aprea pouring on the orchestral gas in the pit, Act II crackled, fierce and hot. Rigoletto’s incredible three-part monologue could send a chill down the spine at each conflicted outburst.
Rigoletto is an anti-hero — malformed, sharp-tongued and paranoid for good reason. He is suspended smack in the middle of an unsavory food chain. On one side is the lecherous Duke of Mantua (tenor Eric Margiore); on the other, twenty haughty, predatory courtiers (a fine male chorus, led by Greg Ritchey).
Rigoletto’s workplace is the Duke’s palace. The ornate, oversize set by Allen Charles Klein for Cincinnati Opera both ennobles and dwarfs the human form. But the jester could no more mistake his boss and “co-workers” for polite society than pretend that he could pass the white-glove test himself.
He has one great love – his innocent young daughter, Gilda (soprano Hanan Alattar). And to protect her from his lewd, conscience-free boss, he’s willing to hire the likes of assassin Sparafucile (bass Grigory Soloviov) and his prostitute sister, Maddalena (mezzo-soprano Jennifer Hines) to eradicate the Duke. But Rigoletto’s love for his daughter creates his greatest fear: that the curse of Monterone (bass David Young), a hapless father like himself, will rob him too of the child he holds dearest.
Thomas as Rigoletto was paired with the charming Hanan Alattar as Gilda, her voice as large as it is focused and sweet. Her Caro nome trailed with the delicacy of incense as she climbed the stairs to her room. To hear her glide through the exceptional vocal quartet, Bella figlia dell’ amore, was one of the evening’s joys.
Tenor Eric Margiore as the Duke proved less steady. With his American Idol, heart-throb looks, he was easily the ever-excitable lover. Musically though, he could give you nervous fits wondering if he’d make the next high note. His La donna e mobile was on track, even if his so-called love ballad about the kidnapped Gilda wasn’t as convincing.
Vocally, few were as consistently smooth as bass Grigory Soloviov as Sparafucile, the dagger-wielding murderer-for-hire. Soloviov’s velvety legato at such a low range is as lovely as it is unexpected. The young singer, who won the Palm Beach Vocal Competition in April 2008, is one of six company resident artists in the production. Another was bass Young, too amiable and lightweight for the outraged, vengeful eruptions that must come from Monterone.
Verdi decks out even the disagreeable bits with some of his most gorgeous music. Rigoletto is one famous tune after another, dressed to the nines in orchestral color, and wonderfully played by the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra.
Stage director Bernard Uzan aimed for the shocking: the more hard-edged, the better. Scenes of overt sexuality left little to imagine and, at times, much to wince about. Uzan doesn’t give an inch: His grinning courtiers, despicably, show not a shred of remorse as they taunt the pleading hunchback.
Yet it’s a joy to again watch Uzan choreograph seamless, purposeful motion. He composes scenes of remarkable symmetry while encompassing the entire stage. He regroups people with the artistic eye of a Rembrandt committing The Nightwatch to canvas.
In an un-pretty story that can easily deteriorate into a very loud and very long shouting match, it takes an artistic team the likes of Aprea and Uzan, Thomas and Alattar to sort out the subtleties, delve into the depths and illumine this dark masterpiece from within.
Sharon McDaniel, former music and dance writer of the Palm Beach Post, now writes for the Stuart News (Scripps) and Palm Beach Daily News (“Shiny Sheet”). She also indulges in a bit o’ blogging and can be tracked to www.CLASSiWords.blogspot.com.
Posted in Performances
Leave a Comment
Tue Dec 16, 2008
at 12:29 pm