Russian soprano luminous in Palm Beach “Rigoletto”

By Lawrence A. Johnson

What a bleak, pitiless landscape Rigoletto inhabits. Even by the standards of Verdi’s cold-eyed Realpolitik, the Mantua court is godless and unforgiving, a milieu where rape is sport, murder diversion, and the innocent must be sheltered behind high walls, for venturing outside means a horrible death.

Palm Beach Opera opened its 46th season Friday night with Verdi’s dark, dramatic masterpiece. As is custom with the company, Rigoletto will run through Monday afternoon at the Kravis Center with two casts alternating in four performances.

The past two weeks of rehearsals for the West Palm Beach production seemed as accursed as the title hunchbacked jester. The original first-cast Rigoletto, Alberto Mastromarino, came down with laryngitis. Then his replacement, the Cuban-American Nelson Martinez, also became ill with laryngitis and had to withdraw. Finally, the superb baritone Todd Thomas was booked as No. 3 hunchback. Thomas will sing the second-cast dates Saturday and Monday while the original second-cast Rigoletto, Chen-Ye Yuan performed Friday night and will do so again Sunday.

If the rigged Rigolettos weren’t enough, a construction scaffolding accident Friday at the Kravis Center meant that audience members had to wind their way through a circuitous route from the parking lot around the building exterior to enter the hall. Sii maledetto!

Even with the Byzantine game of musical hunchbacks, Palm Beach Opera managed to serve up a fiery, at times, riveting Rigoletto with moments of sensational vocalism that made up for casting inconsistencies, under the uber-intense conducting of artistic director Bruno Aprea.

Chen-Ye Yuan has the big voice and stage experience for the role of the embittered jester whose only tender spot is for his innocent daughter, Gilda. Yuan has sung the role widely and proved a worthy, dramatically effective  Rigoletto, vehement in his anger following Gilda’s abduction.

While the Chinese singer possesses an imposing voice, his baritone sounds a bit weathered with a raw, guttural undertone apparent at times, particularly in the Cortigiani. Still Yuan sang sensitively and was at his best in the final scene, contributing to an admirable ensemble performance.

Friday evening’s high points came courtesy of Albina Shagimuratova as Gilda. The Russian soprano has a pure tone and impressive technical arsenal. She overdid the breathless ingénue a bit in Caro nome, which could have been more elegantly delivered, but it was hard to fault her graceful cadenzas and precisely placed top notes.

Shagimuratova sang with cumulative assurance and greater expressive depth as the evening progressed. Gilda’s narration to her father of her humiliation at the hands of the Duke was heart-breaking and Shagimuratova was remarkable in Act 3, with subtle dynamic marking and a staggeringly beautiful diminuendo. Her rendering of Gilda’s final moments was so moving and luminous, one could barely take a breath. Albina Shagimuratova surely seems poised for a major operatic career.

James Valenti is a regular presence at both South Florida companies, and was heard to much better advantage as the caddish Duke than last season’s Rodolfo in Florida Grand Opera’s La Boheme. The handsome American tenor needs to work on his nastiness, as Valenti seems like far too nice a guy for the morally vacuous Duke who treats women like disposable tissue. Vocally Valenti sang well, his vibrant lyric tenor well suited to the role with a hearty Le donne e mobile, tight top note apart, and fine dramatic involvement throughout the evening

Grigory Soloviov proved a worthy Sparafucile, not quite having the black, subterranean bass for the role but chillingly believable as the assassin. Otherwise, there was rather uneven singing from the supporting cast. Jennifer Hines made a sexy if throaty-voiced Maddalena, David Young was a light-in-the-vocal-loafers Monterone with an unimposing curse, and Ceci Grasso Dadisman a barely audible Page.

Allen Charles Klein’s well traveled Cincinnati Opera set is functional and evocative, its air of gloomy disrepair reflecting the amoral milieu within, enhanced by Donald Edmund Thomas’s dark chiaroscuro lighting, which was austerely beautiful. Bernard Uzan’s direction was fluid and unobtrusive, apart from the usual oddities, like Rigoletto making himself a rhythmic mattress for the Duke’s sexual dalliance with the Countess Ceprano. The men of the chorus sang superbly under Greg Ritchey’s direction, with nimble ensemble work in the abduction scene and just the right unearthly offstage wind effects during the climactic storm.

As with all regional companies, there are still not enough string desks in the Palm Beach Opera pit, but the superb musicians of this experienced orchestra provided polished and responsive playing at their usual high level.

Bruno Aprea continues to be a catalyst who elevates any production he conducts to a higher level. The Italian maestro conducts every bar as if his life depends upon it, most palpable Friday night in the hair-trigger intensity and laser-like concentration of his musical direction in the final scene.

Palm Beach Opera’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto runs through Monday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Chen-Ye  Yuan, James Valenti, and Albina Shagimuratova will perform 2 p.m. Sunday and Todd  Thomas, Eric Margiore, and Hanan Alattar sing the leading roles 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Monday. Call 561-833-7888 or go to

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One Response to “Russian soprano luminous in Palm Beach “Rigoletto””

  1. Posted Dec 15, 2008 at 9:31 am by Dave R.

    Love the energy of this group and the cohesiveness of their productions. This was my second visit to PBO, and each time, I was struck by how the company functions as a complete unit (as opposed to the “Here’s the orchestra, here’s the chorus, here are the singers” feeling I get from FGO). I thought Chen-Ye Yuan, despite that little growl, was a wonderful Rigoletto, and Shagimuratova has a beautiful voice. Valenti as the Duke was pleasant enough, but he cheated on lots of notes and basically mailed in la donne e mobile. Still, for some reason, he didn’t annoy me.

    Overall, another fine PBO production, elegantly staged and with Aprea driving the whole thing from the pit.

    Oh, the audience: I’m 48, and my wife and I had to be the youngest people there by far. And they’re a strange bunch. They actually seemed surprised by la donne e mobile, as if they were thinking, “Oh, that’s in this opera?” Also, they seem to give the same applause no matter what (although Valenti, ridiculously, got the loudest applause Sunday afternoon; I mean, folks, he didn’t write la donne e mobile; he just sang it badly!).

    Overall, PBO remains worth the drive from Broward County.

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Sat Dec 13, 2008
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