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A Duke Has Fun, Safe from #MeToo Consequences, in Opera Carolina’s “Rigoletto”

Review: Rigoletto

By Perry Tannenbaum

When he wrote his 1832 play, La roi s’amuse, Victor Hugo lavished a good amount of research on 16th century French king François I and his illicit love for the daughter of his court jester, Triboulet. Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave, who had previously teamed together in transforming Hugo’s Ernani into opera, plunged into La roi despite the fact that its depiction of depraved historical characters had run afoul of French censors. That was something of a miscalculation, for Italian censors were no more lenient.

Verdi and Piave were compelled to move their opera to nearby Mantua and demote Hugo’s king to a duke. Those shifts affect the interrelationships of all three main characters in Rigoletto. A duke’s womanizing is more presumptuous than a king’s, and a jester’s plot to strangle a duke is less of a high crime than assassinating a king. Most important, an Italian daughter’s desire to thwart her father’s vendetta against a duke who deflowered and betrayed her is far less comprehensible than a French daughter sacrificing herself for her king and protecting her family from the stain of regicide.

Adding to the discomfort that has always suffused Gilda’s sacrifice on behalf of the reprehensible Duke of Mantua is watching it in our current #MeToo climate. The notorious Metropolitan Opera production of 2010-11 made Gilda’s adulation toward the Duke more understandable by transporting the action to Las Vegas and turning Gilda’s seducer into a nightclub superstar crooner with ties to the mob. It would be interesting to see what Opera Carolina could do with a more traditional concept, a co-production by Boston Lyric Opera, Atlanta Opera, and Opera Omaha that has had its set design and costumes baked in since it premiered in Boston, under the direction of Tomer Zvulun, in 2014.

   

You couldn’t say that Opera Carolina was ignoring their #MeToo problem, because they brought Jordan Lee Braun aboard to stage direct the Charlotte edition of this production and hired Sara Jobin to prepare the Charlotte Symphony and conduct two of the three performances. It was the first such female tandem in the company’s history.

Most of the Rigoletto rehab was evident before intermission. Conducting the orchestra at the premiere performance, general director and principal conductor James Meena had the Charlotte Symphony attacking the first sforzandos of the prelude with more savagery than we usually hear foreshadowing the curse that falls on Rigoletto from the Count Monterone, leaving less ferocity for the orchestra to crescendo to afterwards. It’s bit more vulgar and in-your-face, which is what Raffaele Abete turns out to be in the opening scene as the Duke, throwing around Monterone’s daughter, his latest conquest, by the hair as if she were a ragdoll – cuing us that he has conquered this beauty with his power and privilege rather than his charm. The other “ladies” in this opening scene, many of them courtesans who entertain the Duke’s courtiers, have been excised from this production, concentrating all malice and decadence on the Duke – and his jester, Rigoletto. Our protagonist certainly earns the Count’s curse by suggesting to the Duke that he execute the nobleman to spare himself that dad’s righteous indignation.

As Rigoletto, baritone Anooshah Golesorkhi wasn’t the most malignant mocker I’ve seen, and though costume designer Victoria Tzykun outfits him with a sizable hump, Golesorkhi declined to stoop over and enlist himself among Hugo’s hunchbacks. So he wasn’t the most pitifully deformed of jesters, either. Humpbacked rather than hunchbacked, this Rigoletto struck me as a stronger, crueler father in his insistence on walling up Gilda against the outside world. We don’t get nearly as much to pity about Rigoletto’s possessiveness. It appears, then, that Braun has elected to make both Rigoletto and the Duke more cognizant of their abusive choices and more repellent. When Gilda hoped out loud that her secret love would be poor and simple, the Duke visibly overheard it, debunking any notion that he was romantically inspired when he masqueraded as the penniless Gualtier Maldè.

Yet after intermission, Abete pushed back against the notion that he was a purely vicious, self-gratifying rogue. In his fervent “Parmi veder le lagrime,” the tenor convinced me that the Duke was feeling the pangs of true love for the first time, and later, when his infidelity would soon be exposed to the worshipful Gilda, he sang the famous “La donna è mobile” with the joy of a world-class hedonist. Returning to Charlotte after a fine turn last fall as Roxane in David DiChiera’s Cyrano, soprano Magali Simard-Galdés wasn’t as impressive in Gilda’s signature aria. The notes of the beloved “Caro nome” were all there – including most of the trills – but the blushes and longing we could have heard, let alone the heavy aches that Maria Callas achieved, were nowhere to be found in a rendition that was hardly middling, and she earned no bravas from the audience.

Called upon to be more confessional and spirited in her subsequent arias, Simard-Galdés plumbed more deeply into Gilda’s soul. She was poignant after Gilda had been dismissed by the Duke at his palace. In the final act, after watching the Duke betray her love with nearly the exact sentiments he professed to her, Gilda is sent off to Verona where, disguised as a man, Rigoletto instructs her to wait for him while his hired assassin, Sparafucile, does his dirty work. This was where Simard-Galdés was at her best, reacting to the Duke’s betrayal as part of Verdi’s great quartet, and implausibly returning later on to take her beloved Duke’s place as Sparafucile’s victim. The soprano’s heartfelt little aria was heartbreaking – and like so many other moments in this opera, absolutely infuriating.

I sympathized most with Golesorkhi in the final two acts, when Rigoletto told Monterone that he would make sure to see that his curse on the Duke was fulfilled and when he empathized with Gilda at those moments she was seeing the Duke’s true character clearly. Sadly, Golesorkhi’s moping return to the palace, after Gilda was stolen from him, was relatively lackluster. But the volcano of rage welling up in Rigoletto; telling the courtiers that Gilda was his daughter, not his lover, and then cursing the lot of them; was magnificent.

For anyone who has felt that the closing tableau of Rigoletto was dramatically overlong, as Gilda slowly reaches her final breath in Rigoletto’s arms, Golesorkhi and Simard-Galdés were both helped by Opera Carolina’s staging. A nifty sleight-of-hand took place before Rigoletto, alerted by the sound of the Duke’s signature aria, realized that Gilda had been murdered instead of her seducer. Golesorkhi seemed to discover the dying Gilda and to cradle her in his arms, but she was a body double. Simard-Galdés emerged from behind a scrim, radiantly lit in Michael Baumgarten’s lighting design, a soul already in heaven as she sang. The alteration made sense, but I was ambivalent about it.

Unlike Tzykun’s costume designs or Martha Ruskai’s wig and makeup designs, I didn’t find John Conklin’s set design particularly worth preserving, scanty for its palace, lacking a façade for Sparafucile’s tavern, and utterly illogical for the courtship and abduction episodes. Courtiers actually looked down on the garden scene as Gilda sang the final notes of her rapturous “Caro nome,” moments before they climbed up a ladder to abduct her! But it’s utterly fanciful to say that the courtiers climbed anything, for there was nothing substantial for Rigoletto to lean a ladder against, except an invisible fourth wall facing us. That ladder was ridiculously small, and needless to say, no climbing was done.

Overall, the Opera Carolina components of this production were stronger than their borrowings. Ashraf Sawailam reminded us what a plum cameo Count Monterone’s role is with his stern denunciations, and bass baritone Matthew Curran had nearly all of Sparafucile’s sneering machismo, including the long low note he must hold departing from his first conspiratorial parley with Rigoletto. Paradoxically, it was Leyla Martinucci as Sparafucile’s sister and accomplice Maddalena, who best affirmed Gilda’s crazed devotion toward the Duke.

Hired to help take the Duke off-guard, Martinucci simpers, flirts, and vamps with professional self-assurance, yet she also convinces us that Maddelena has fallen victim to his charms when she pleads with her cutthroat brother to save the rascal’s life. Martinucci is an apt subject for the Duke’s “Bella figlia dell’amore” aria, and the mezzo-soprano contributed beguilingly to the climactic quartet that blossomed from his endless appetite for self-gratification. Yes, the Duke was having fun as Hugo’s original title prescribed, but what remained horrifying was that woman after woman could mistake it for love.

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Opera Carolina’s “Barber of Seville” Sharpens the Comedy

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Review : The Barber of Seville

By Perry Tannenbaum

Poor Beaumarchais. A crucial friend of the American Revolution, French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais’s great Figaro comedies have been both favored and scorned by history. Just two years after The Marriage of Figaro premiered in Paris, Mozart’s 1786 adaptation eclipsed the theater version, remaining one of opera’s supreme masterworks to this day. And the Rossini version of the first Figaro play, The Barber of Seville, has a been an operagoer’s favorite ever since its Rome premiere in 1816.

Hardly a month goes by without one of these operas being produced somewhere around the globe. The original Beaumarchais comedies? Not so much. They endure through the operas they inspired.

Rossini was the fifth or sixth composer to adapt The Barber, and undoubtedly the best, for the profusion of memorable melodies in this score has hardly been equaled by any other opera. But popularity can pay a price. Two hundred years after Barber’s triumphant premiere, there are indications that both producers and audiences are wearying of the longtime favorite.

Up in New York, director Bartlett Sher had the opera and the libretto by Cesare Sterbini sliced, diced, and freshly translated for a new family-friendly version at the Metropolitan Opera during the holidays last season. Obviously, the calculus included the notion that the hit parade packaged in a compressed Barber could serve as a gateway to other operas and/or Rossini, for the composer’s Lady of the Lake was among the other operas that I found in the Met’s rotation last December.

Yet there seemed to be some uneasiness from Sher about presenting the classic in the usual way. As a result, baritone Elliot Madore was more of an action hero as Figaro than a razor-stropping conniver, and tenor David Portillo was almost a purely romantic hero as the barber’s co-conspirator, Count Almaviva, further draining the comedy from the evening.

No such trimming, miscalculating, uneasiness, or distortion occurs in Opera Carolina’s current production at Belk Theater. Stage director Bernard Uzan, who directed a delicious Opera Carolina-Piedmont Opera co-production of Barber in 2002, both in Charlotte and Winston-Salem, helps the singers to wed Rossini’s music with Beaumarchais’s comedy even more delightfully this time around.

You can bet that OC general director James Meena, conducting the Charlotte Symphony, is also in on the comedy conspiracy, for his alertness with dynamics and tempo consistently sharpens Rossini’s musical joking. From the orchestra pit up to the stage, with its pitch-perfect scenery and costuming, everybody seems jazzed by the concept of this revival.

No, all the Rossini fatigue in Charlotte seems to be out in the hall, where empty seats gradually dominated the rear of the orchestra section on opening night. At intermission, I looked up at the top balcony, shocked to find that none of the seats up yonder had been sold. Ushers up there enjoying the show could have any seat they wished. Three performances shouldn’t satisfy audience hunger for an outstanding production like this, but unfortunately, hundreds have already missed out on the fun.unspecified

It starts with tenor Victor Ryan Robertson, who was so slick and rascally as Sportin’ Life earlier this year in Charleston at Spoleto Festival USA’s production of Porgy and Bess. Disguised as the student Lindoro, Robertson torches Count Almaviva’s lovesick “Ecco ridente in cielo” serenade in the opening scene. The strength of Robertson’s singing promises that he will be as noble and ardent as Portillo was in New York.

But to spirit his sweetheart Rosina away from the decrepit and perverted fingers of her guardian, Dr. Bartolo, Count Almaviva dons two disguises within his Lindoro disguise, first a drunken soldier to be quartered in Bartolo’s home and later a singing teacher to tutor Rosina. Aided by the zany handiwork of wig-and-makeup designer Martha Ruskai, Roberston’s comic stints far excel what I witnessed at the Met, actually upstaging our clever Figaro. In particular, the nasal whine of the tutor, compounded by the dopey look of his coke-bottle eyeglasses, is magnificent overkill if their intent is to calm the rabid jealousies of the vigilant Bartolo.

Of course, it’s Figaro who upstages Almaviva in the opening scene, and Hyung Yun registers a resounding triumph with the most familiar patter song in all opera, the “Largo al factotum.” Yun was not only up to the increasing speed of the aria, he refused to hide behind the language barrier, sounding like he was saying something rather than zipping through an advertising jingle. Sher’s impulse to turn the title character into an action hero was understandable given the tendency for him to devolve into a lovable clown, but Yun’s Figaro remains a clever and resourceful rogue.

No, Figaro doesn’t have to beg like a silly slave when Almaviva and Rosina delay their escape from Bartolo’s home late in Act 2, nor does he need to counsel haste and quiet to the lovers like a sensible big brother. Yun takes a neat middle way, preserving the comedy that Gilbert and Sullivan must have cherished (see the denouement in The Pirates of Penzance). I also appreciated how Yun held up his end of the “Fortunati affeti mei” duet with Rosina in Act 1, Scene 2, earnestly expressing his admiration for women’s aptitude for deceit without becoming – as we usually hear – a mere background drone.

With her crazy Queen of the Night range, soprano Kathryn Lewek was certainly worthy of all the admiration that came her way as Rosina, topping her own Op Carolina debut as Lucia di Lammermoor 18 months ago and topping what I saw and heard from mezzo Isabel Leonard in New York last December. In some respects, she even surpassed the scintillating work of mezzo Vivica Genaux when she sang Rosina here in 2002.

Not only did Lewek reach higher notes in her coloratura flights, she also conspired to deliver more comedy. From the moment she launched into the famed “Una voce poco fa,” proclaiming Rosina’s devilish tendencies, it was obvious the Lewek was capable of meeting the pyrotechnical demands of this showpiece. Uzan was clearly her accomplice in taking Rosina’s coloratura beyond showmanship.

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Early on, we get indications from Lewek of what would become deliciously explicit later on – when she and Lindoro, disguised as her tutor, are carrying on in the same room where the hoodwinked Bartolo is getting ready for his shave. Those coloratura flights aren’t merely the showy warblings of a songbird, they are manifestations of uncontrollable sensual delight, triggered each time Almaviva caresses Rosina’s arm. Lewek delivers these passages with sudden surges in volume to enhance the effect. Sensational and comically seductive at the same time.

Stephen Condy as Dr. Bartolo and Kevin Langan as Don Basilio turn in fine performances as the dupes of all this connivance. Bartolo is the dopier dupe, more often in the spotlight, but bass Langan upstages him musically with Basilio’s “La calumnia,” urging a vicious campaign of rumor to drive Almaviva out of town. Condy, a baritone of imposing pomposity, listens stolidly as Langan’s fulminations rise to a stormy peak. Then he responds with a simple no, rounding off a polished comedy gem.

Uzan sprinkles the staging with other comedy nuggets, making sure Basilio’s endless exit is milked as thoroughly in the middle of Act 2 as the lovers’ aborted escape is afterwards. More singular is the slow motion and stop motion that gets layered onto the chaotic ensemble that ends Act 1, built up to pandemonium from a hushed staccato. The same shtick worked well in the 2002 production that Uzan directed here in 2002, so why not bring it back?

After attending a Charlotte Symphony concert just eight days earlier, when I sat up in the grand tier, I found the orchestral sound comparatively muffled as Meena struck up the overture down in the pit. I’d already acclimated to the altered dynamics by the time the curtain rose on pre-dawn Seville. When Meena summoned the music that covers the transition from afternoon to midnight at Bartholo’s home midway into Act 2, it really carried the shocking snap and crackle of an unforeseen lightning storm.

Sure enough, Beaumarchais called for the sound of a terrible storm in the interval between Acts 3 and 4 of his original playscript, sparking more than two centuries of conjecture that he intended his work to be an opera all along. With its exceptional singing and mirth-making, I’d say the current Opera Carolina production of The Barber of Seville fulfills Rossini’s and Beaumarchais’s intentions in equal measure.