Viva Verdi! Florida Grand Opera serves up a riveting “Rigoletto”

By Lawrence Budmen

Sharleen Joynt as Gilda and Todd Thomas in the title role of Verdi’s Rigoletto at Florida Grand Opera. Photo: Daniel Azoulay

Verdi’s Rigoletto may be standard, bread and butter operatic repertoire but there is nothing staid or routine about Florida Grand Opera’s new production, seen opening night at the Arsht Center on Saturday. 

Fielding a first-rate cast from the major leads to the smallest roles, Kathleen Belcher’s staging turns Victor Hugo’s melodramatic story (on which the opera is based) into a thriller that keeps the viewer on the edge of his seat.

First and foremost, Verdi requires outstanding voices and FGO’s staging has them in abundance. In the title role of the court jester to the Duke of Mantua, Todd Thomas is an old-school Verdi baritone with a large, booming voice. 

This Rigoletto was more an introspective, cynical philosopher than a cruel, tart-tongued clown. Thomas could register anger and range with a vengeance. In Rigoletto’s monologue “Pari siamo,” his shock and fear of Count Monterone’s curse was manifest and, ultimately poignant. Thomas’s final cry of “La Maledizione” was chilling but he also had the power and vocal warmth to bring tenderness to the duets with Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter.

Sharleen Joynt was the essence of goodness as the hunchback’s sequestered daughter. Joynt’s sweetness of timbre was matched by spot-on intonation and effortless coloratura that veered excitingly into the vocal stratosphere. Her “Caro nome” was giddy with Gilda’s first flush of love palpably felt rather than a mere display piece. Joynt and Thomas’s voices blended felicitously in duet. After Gilda has sacrificed herself to save the life of the faithless Duke, Joynt sang her farewell at half voice, her death radiating pathos.

As the Duke, José Simerilla Romero was a major discovery. He commands a sizable tenor voice with a dark glow reminiscent of Domingo and Carreras in their youthful prime. With a throb in his tone and ring at the top, his is a major league instrument.

“Questa  o quella” was tossed off with lightness of inflection and “La donna è mobile” as a lyrical definition of the philandering royal rather than a showstopper. Romero’s impassioned intensity and aristocratic phrasing turned the quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore” into one of the evening’s highlights. Romero managed to suggest the Duke’s arrogance and sexism but also his wonder at women’s attraction and love for him. He is a young singer with a very promising future.

Matt Boehler had the faux dignified bearing and black, low bass for the professional assassin Sparafucile. As his sister and partner in crime Maddalena, Stephanie Doche was sexy and alluring with the warm, smoky mezzo to entice the Duke and listeners alike. (Doche did double duty, also playing Giovanna, Rigoletto’s servant, ably.) In the Act IV storm scene, as Sparafucile and Maddalena debate whether to kill the Duke, the tension between Boehler and Doche generated sparks. 

José Simerilla Romero as the Duke and Sharleen Joynt as Gilda in Rigoletto. Photo: Daniel Azoulay

Neil Nelson’s showed a powerful bass-baritone and striking stage presence as Count Monterone as he cursed Rigoletto and the Duke’s court. Michael Pandolfo’s manly baritone was a standout as Marullo, leader of the conniving courtiers. Amanda Olea brought a pretty voice and elegance to Countess Ceprano’s scene with the Duke. Other roles were capably assayed by Charles Calotta, Erik Danielson and Page Michels.

From the first notes of the Prelude, Pacien Mazzagatti’s conducting generated ample Verdian fire and explosive momentum. He drew outstanding playing from the orchestra while highlighting Verdi’s elegant wind writing and vibrant vocal lines. The chorus (under Matthew Cooperman) sang with vociferous enthusiasm and unified corporate precision.

Handsome sets by Lawrence Shafer from the New Orleans Opera, especially a ducal palace both grand and intimate, and Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s multi-colored period costumes provided an eye-catching mise-en-scene. Ron Vodicka’s lighting mirrored the bright and dark shades of Verdi’s score effectively. 

Belcher’s stage direction had cinematic weep, providing real suspense at every plot twist. This was vividly staged and acted musical melodrama, wholly avoiding the old fashioned tendency to just stand and sing.

At the final curtain, the audience’s cheers and bravo were well deserved. There are three remaining performances in Miami and two in Fort Lauderdale. Vocal lovers and Verdi aficionados should not miss this exciting Rigoletto.

Prior to the performance, the audience stood for the playing of the Ukrainian national anthem in tribute to the victims of the ongoing war and violence engulfing that country.

Florida Grand Opera repeats Rigoletto 2 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. Tuesday and 8 p.m. Thursday at the Arsht Center in Miami and 7:30 p.m. March 31 and April 2 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale.

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One Response to “Viva Verdi! Florida Grand Opera serves up a riveting “Rigoletto””

  1. Posted Mar 19, 2022 at 10:28 pm by Donald Elisburg

    We attended the Thursday presentation at the Arsht Center. The performance was outstanding altho I am not so qualified to give it the A++ of your critic.

    Donald Elisburg

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