Verdi’s “Rigoletto” receives a crackling performance from Palm Beach Opera

By David Fleshler

Michael Chioldi and Andrea Carroll in Verdi's Rigoletto" Friday night at Palm Beach Opera.

Michael Chioldi and Andrea Carroll in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” Friday night at Palm Beach Opera. Photo: Bruce Bennett

Verdi’s dark masterpiece Rigoletto was given a moving performance Friday at Palm Beach Opera. Although not everything went perfectly, this performance had what makes a great night of opera—brilliant accounts of the show-stopping arias, chilling street scenes and crackling drama.

The performance at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach took place on sets that were somber and effective. Even the opulence of the Duke of Mantua’s court came off as gloomy and grim, with its stone colonnades, burgundy drapes and chandeliers. The streets of the town were cast in moonlit darkness, with a turbulent, overcast sky and occasional flashes of lightning.

Much of the power of Rigoletto comes from the image of this man in clownish streamers and stripes, who spends his days cracking jokes in the Duke’s court, rising to the desperate defense of his daughter. As Verdi wrote before the opera’s 1851 premiere in Venice, “I thought it would be very beautiful to portray this extremely deformed and ridiculous character who is inwardly passionate and full of love.”

The baritone Michael Chioldi captured all sides of this complex character, in an affecting, powerful portrayal. At first, it appeared this would be a Rigoletto in which the character’s bitterness, darkness and aggression would predominate. As he mocked the nobleman Monterone, Chioldi drew out the notes, ramping up the derision in a manner that was more subtle than the usual clowning seen in opera. With his large voice, the aria “Pari siamo,” in which he meditates on what he does for a living, came off with cavernous dark tones. And he gave a thunderous cry of rage and horror, “Ah, la maledizione!” when he discovers his daughter Gilda’s disappearance.

Yet in his first duet with Gilda, he didn’t quite bring off the golden tones that would show the fatherly love welling up from the deformed man in the ridiculous costume. He expressed his love for her through violence, pushing her maid around as he demands that he keep her safe. Yet later in the opera, as he pleads with the courtiers to return her, singing in the Duke’s cold court, he gave a deeply moving performance, singing “Marullo, Signore,” with melting warmth. Alexander Krasnov will sing the role Saturday.

As Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda, Andrea Carroll gave an affecting, vocally dazzling performance. Her “Caro nome” was a joy to hear – effortless, with pure lyric tones, dreamy and romantic, with flawless high notes. In her duets with Rigoletto, in which she hears of the pain of his life and confesses her love for the Duke, her flexible soprano intertwined with his voice and then soared above it. Deanna Breiwick will sing the role Saturday.

The Russian tenor Alexey Tatarintsev made a smarmily appealing Duke of Mantua. His “Questa o quella” was smooth and incisive. Although his stage manner was stiff, with a few stock gestures, his voice communicated the duke’s confident mastery, and he brought a sustained legato and Italianate warmth as he sang of his love for Gilda. He gave a bravura account of the famous “La donna è mobile,” nailing the high ornamentations not just accurately but with gusto. Alok Kumar will sing the role Saturday.

Under conductor Antonello Allemandi, the orchestra delivered its usual fine performance. Strings were outstanding in those complex, agitated figures so characteristic of Verdi. The orchestra was occasionally too loud, however, particularly in one first act chorus, which turned into a mushy passage in which the duke’s crucial top notes could barely be heard. The final act quartet was spectacular, as the surging emotions of love, fear, greed and revenge intertwined for a brilliantly effective and moving ensemble performance.

One of the great scenes in the opera is Rigoletto’s first encounter with the hired assassin Sparafucile, who meets the hunchback at night to offer his services. The orchestra set the scene effectively, with shadowy tones in the winds over rumblings in the lower strings, as the murky street scene unfolded.

As Sparafucile, the bass Stefan Kocan took the stage with brawny menace. In his sinister dialogue with Rigoletto, he sang with intimidating, understated power, displaying the easy physical confidence of a man who could kill you without a weapon. At the end of their conversation, as he repeats his name to Rigoletto, he hits an almost inhumanly low F, a note that Kocan reached with apparent ease and sustained impressively even after he walked off the stage.

Under stage director Jay Lesenger, the performance was traditional, naturalistic and effective, although there were a few gaffes opening night. During the prelude, he arranged a scene in which Rigoletto embraces Gilda, as a man (who we later learn is Monterone), looks down from a balcony, as lightning flashes. This distracted from the stark climax of the prelude without offering anything particularly interesting in return. During “Caro nome,” he had Gilda’s nurse Giovanna, played by Tara Curtis, hang around her, embracing her, a distraction when all attention should be on Gilda. And then there were the whoops and squeals of the duke’s courtiers, which interfered with the music and constituted a cliché favored by directors of La Traviata, Don Giovanni and other operas that show decadent aristocrats at play.

As Sparafucile’s sister, Maddalena, the mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock was aptly sexually provocative. Vocally she delivered a fine performance and held up her end more than competently in the quartet.

Matthew Treviño made a weak Monterone, his pallid voice lacking the baleful power to deliver the curse that’s supposed to drive the opera. As Marullo, leader of the courtiers who kidnap Gilda, the baritone Joshua Conyers brought a big voice and displayed loutish pleasure in tormenting Rigoletto.

The chorus, under chorus master Greg Ritchey, was outstanding throughout. Playing the roles of the Duke’s courtiers, who taunt Rigoletto and kidnap his daughter, they sang with soft but clear, full and precise tones and delivered impressive heft when required, as in the curse scene.

Palm Beach Opera’s production of Rigoletto will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.; 561-833-7888

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Sat Mar 11, 2017
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