Martinez’s vivid hunchback provides the highlights in MLO’s lackluster “Rigoletto”

By Dave Rosenbaum

Nelson Martinez performed the title role in Verdi's "Rigoletto" at Miami Lyric Opera.

Nelson Martinez performed the title role in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at Miami Lyric Opera.

Clowns never seem to get a fair shake in opera.

Canio in Pagliacci kills his wife and her lover in a jealous rage. In Rigoletto, the title court jester is often portrayed as a dark, narcissistic villain who gets what’s coming to him. Author Victor Hugo described the character, upon whom Verdi based Rigoletto, as evil and blamed him for the duke’s seduction of women.

In Miami Lyric Opera’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto, which opened Saturday night at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach and will be repeated Sunday afternoon, baritone Nelson Martinez offered a more nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of the much-maligned hunchback. Through his vocal shadings and expressive face, Martinez presented a multi-dimensional character who isn’t all bluster and self-pity. Usually, it’s the dying Gilda we cry for at the end of the opera; here, Martinez’s Rigoletto owns our emotions.

Maybe that’s because, after nearly three hours, we’d heard enough from the other singers in MLO’s cast. For the most part, nothing was terribly wrong with the cast, but, other than Martinez, a company favorite who sang the role here in 2011, very little was terribly right, either.

Rigoletto is a perfect opera and Verdi keeps the action moving, never letting recitative slow the drama. But it’s a singer’s opera, too, and MLO’s cast mostly lacked the vocal chops, leaving Martinez the burden of making the evening worthwhile.

As Gilda, the court jester’s daughter, soprano Tina Gorina played it safe and bland. “Caro nome” is one of the most beautiful arias in the repertoire, highly emotional in its expression of new love, nerve-wracking for the audience because there’s always the risk that the soprano will fall off the high-wire on high notes. But Gorina never bothered to step foot on the high-wire and kept “Caro nome”  grounded in her light soprano and colorless coloratura. Her voice opened up and gained some warmth and range in the later acts, but her labored singing often made for a difficult listen.

Miguel Angel Lobato proved equally frustrating as the Duke. He got off to a promising start with “Questo o quella,” his warm, weighty tenor extending smoothly. But warmth is not what you want from the Duke. He’s an unrepentant skirt chaser and someone you don’t want anywhere near your wife or daughter. Lobato’s voice and nice-guy persona made you want to invite him over for a family dinner. Lobato’s “La donne e mobile,” was serviceable but lacked humor and panache.

In this sparse, economical production, it was up to Martinez’s hunchback to do the heavy lifting.  His baritone could be deep, powerful and menacing, weighty even in the mezzo voce passages. Yet Martinez’s singing could also turn loving and sweet in the first act duet with Gilda, or sorrowful when lamenting his kidnapped daughter. Martinez mined the emotions in Act 2, evoking pity, then jealous rage and ignoring his daughter’s pleas for mercy.

Some directorial lapses didn’t help the performance. Rigoletto and Gilda’s first act reunion (“Figlia! Mio padre!”)  fell emotionally flat with father and daughter far away from each other and just singing to the audience. And the abduction scene was marred when the curtain dropped prematurely a minute or so before the end of Act One, leaving the audience staring at the curtain until Rigoletto popped his head through and moaned, “Ah! la maledizione!” (“The curse!”) to almost-comic effect.

As Sparafucile, Alexis Trejos was all growl and no bite, his wobbly bass making for an unmenacing assassin. Emilia Acon possesses the smoky mezzo-soprano expected of Maddalena, but her throaty voice didn’t always project over the orchestra. As Monterone, Ismael Gonzalez thundered the angry father’s curse but did so in a dramatically static style. The Act 3 quartet, however, was one of the more successful moments with the four different voices blending well.

Conductor Doris Lang Kosloff kept the small orchestra in check, never allowing it to drown out the singers. The orchestra playing frequently strayed outside the lines but got the job done and even, at times, captured the lushness of Verdi’s magnificent score. The small chorus was, after Martinez, the evening’s other standout.

Rigoletto will be repeated 4 p.m. Sunday at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach, and August 15 and 16 at South Miami Dade Cultural Arts Center. miamilyricopera.org.

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Sun Jul 12, 2015
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