Against the forecast of five snow flurries that threatened to subjugate the Olympic city, the Atlanta Opera braved on, and despite having cancelled an important orchestra rehearsal per the mandatory Mayoral city shutdown, Rigoletto opened to a full house this past Saturday February 28. While uneven, the presentation was still an exciting one, and introduced a new wave of talent that promises much for the future of opera in America.
The production, a joint effort between the Atlanta Opera, Boston Lyric Opera and Opera Omaha, is the brainchild of Atlanta Opera Artistic Director Zvulun Tomer, and it ranks as one of his better efforts. As designed by John Conklin, the main sets were comprised of solid walls arranged like a courtyard, and further subdivided into two interior features, at times decorated with a collage of renaissance art pieces, or revealed as dark barren walls. They handsomely provided a setting for the cast, deliciously costumed by Vita Tzukun, to carry on the evening’s work. As spelled out in the production notes, great care has been taken to underline the contrast between public spaces and intimate dwellings through the use of scrims and clever lighting by designer Robert Wierzel. The results were often impressive, allowing for fluid transitions between scenes, most remarkably throughout the duration of the complicated second part of the first act, which was carried out with impeccable cohesion. Overall, it is essentially a concept production masquerading as a traditional-ish one, at times sacrificing key elements of the libretto in favor of superfluous innovations. For instance, in an opera where isolation (both emotional and physical) is so important, something as simple and necessary as doors and walls were simply implied. The loss of musico-dramatic tension was significant, and an obvious disconnect was felt as Rigoletto gazed at his non-existent gate while the orchestra indicated its presence. Similarly, no visible door enclosed the hapless Gilda during the jester’s famous challenge of the courtiers in act two, and at the opera’s close, nothing for a desperate Rigoletto to bang against as his daughter’s life left this earth (his aimless lines were mercifully left out of the supertitles). While the third act quartet, arguably the opera’s greatest contribution to Western Civilization, could have also benefited from better spatial definition, the opera’s final scene achieved a surprisingly poetic effect. It is telling that this was carried out through an interpolated innovation, a sign that Mr. Zvulun is not yet willing to fully interpret opera solely through the language of the composer. Still, comparing this to his previous productions, he may very well be on his way.
For these presentations of Verdi’s Rigoletto, conductor Joseph Rescigno led a reading of the score’s critical edition. Indeed, the evening was made the richer for the inclusion of the Duke’s often omitted cabaletta “Possente amor mi chiama”. The lovely candenza in the cantabile section of the Duke and Gilda duet “E il sol dell’anima” was performed, and unwritten (albeit traditional) alternate high notes were generally avoided. All, we assume, in the spirit of keeping with the opera’s harmonic progressions, Verdi’s musical language and in general good musical taste. The maestro’s quick tempi, however, proved controversial, at times lending an exciting verve to the score, but more often rushing the singers past their point of comfort. Nowhere was this more evident than in the execution of the Duke’s grand scena in the opera’s second act, where the awkward disconnect between the stage and the pit resulted in a complete loss of the cavatina. This was a big shame, because the young artist entrusted with the part exhibited many qualities that proved ideal for this starry role.
Making his Atlanta Opera debut as the Duke of Mantua, tenor Scott Quinn made a palpable impression upon the ear through his elegant declamation. His tenor has an appealing Italianate timbre, and it is pushed along by way of a tight and lively quiver, and whenever it found itself devoid of orchestral stressors, it gained a tone of remarkable beauty. Though not a large, dominant instrument (the label tenore di grazia comes to mind), his voice was heard well throughout the large confines of the Cobb Energy Center, demanding attention by way of both the richness and elegance of phrasing and the possibilities one projected for it. With time, it is an instrument likely to make him an ideal candidate for the catalogue of the great Italian leading roles. This should be read as both compliment and warning, for this young, handsome artist should be mindful of his own weaknesses when connecting his middle and upper registers, and better administer his breathing resources. These testing parts will call out any crack in his armour, and as seen of opening night, this is exactly what came to pass. After a favorable impression in the first act, the second proved his undoing. Indeed, his grand scena, reserved for him and him alone, became an example of what some call “death by aria”, and regardless of where the fault may lay, the tricky “Parmi veder le lagrime” was rattled out of recognition. He recovered for the third act, singing the crowd pleasing “La donna e mobile” with much bravado and capping his effort with a strong high B, and though his participation in the opera’s great quartet proved less intense, he had by then established himself as a singer whose development warrants attention.
The role of Gilda requires great variety of expression, and one of the great challenges for an opera company is finding a soprano who can convince as the innocent virtuous young virgin and can transition into a courageous, selfless tragic heroine by curtain’s end. Entrusted with the assignment, young soprano Nadine Sierra did much to please Atlanta’s ear. It is, to be sure, a beautiful, soft-grained lyric soprano of a certain rosy and pale color, evenly produced and steady throughout its range. While delightful to the hear, the heart was harder to convince, and some of her singing acquired a muted, miniature quality, particularly as the young soprano ascended the staff during Gilda’s famous aria “Caro nome” While various details may be singled out to explain our passing apprehension: Fussy diction, an occasional shrillness at the stratosphere or the undersized dimension of her soprano as applied to this Verdi role, what ultimately qualified her efforts three shades above the perfunctory was the lack of alertness and tonal variety in her singing. As heard on the opening night presentation, her singing consistently sacrificed the drama at hand in favor for the production of beautiful sound. While there is much to be admire in this, there was not enough of it in Ms. Sierra’s performance to overcome her lack of revelatory expression. This meek brand of intensity created an emotional disconnect to the character’s plight in the third act, and as Gilda entered Sparafucile’s lair we feared for the loss of the young soprano with the pretty voice rather than for the hapless woman sacrificing her life for a man not worthy of it. At the risk of sounding unfair, we should remember that this is a near impossible role (the vocal requirements for the first act differ greatly from the third, and the character’s expressive arc must be expertly managed in order to convince), and much of Ms. Sierra’s singing, such as her serviceable trills and round phrasing, were quite accomplished. We hope that with time she will fulfill her promise as a Verdi exponent of note.
Appearing on the Atlanta Opera stage for the first time, veteran baritone Todd Thomas made a spectacular debut as the eponymous Rigoletto, tilting the presentation’s scale from excitingly uneven to that of a Verdian experience of real verve and substance. The owner of a rich and flexible dramatic baritone, Mr. Thomas proved that these basic endowments in and of themselves were not enough to excuse his presence onstage, and from his first appearance he seemed not afraid to break his voice apart in his pursuit of lyric expression. Lucky for all, he has also mastered the technical means to achieve his artistic intensions, which were in full display during Rigoletto’s soliloquy “Pari siamo”. In it, Mr. Thomas’ singing became a tortured exploration of the dark and plaintive colors of his instrument, resulting in a vocal feat full of depth and pathos. For the important first duet with Gilda, he ran the gamut of tonal variety. At first, calling upon the more vibrant shades for the jubilant greeting, only to transition to the more melancholy tones at the memory of his departed wife. His art was equally responsive in the paranoid and reconciliatory sections that followed, setting the stage for the tour de force test awaiting him in the following act. This, the famous “Cortigliani”, was executed with gripping temerity, leading with frenetic impulse to the pathetic as our anti-hero pleads to Marullo. The conclusion of this showpiece was rendered the more touching by Mr. Thomas’ elegant phrasing and his nod to the great Rigolettos of the past, briefly recalling Tito Gobbi in the key line “…tutto, TUT-to al mondo e tal figlia per me”. Even when not actively singing, his interpretation continued to make its mark, his quiet and pensive manner as Gilda disclosed her shame indicative of a man witnessing two worlds collide before his eyes. One possible demerit in his performance were the few veristic instances where his Rigoletto would revert to shouting during his participation of the act’s stretta “Si, vendetta, tremenda vendetta”, unnecessarily underlining that which he had already expressed through artful declamation. For the opera’s final scene, he reserved his most vulnerable and exposed tones, projecting his immeasurable loss with a devastating effect upon the audience. Even this bitter writer was affected. We can only hope that this enterprise with the Atlanta Opera will not be his last.
The remaining principals provided an uneven appeal. As the bandit Sparafucile, bass Morris Robinson impressed by way of a gargantuan instrument that has made him a mainstay in some of the world’s most important opera houses. But despite his imposing talents, or perhaps because of them, his interpretation was limited to an overly muscular production, thundering through his introductory scene and his important participation in the third act. Cast as his sister Maddalena, mezzo-soprano Krysty Swann had a substantial voice, but was vocally and histrionically miscast down to a blooper in the supertitle screen. A more complete art was displayed by the steady voice of bass Nathan Stark, who rounded off the cast as the dignified and statuesque Monterone.
The Atlanta Opera continues its 2014-15 season this April with Mozart’s eternal masterpiece, Le Nozze di Figaro. For more information, please visit the company’s website at www.atlantaopera.org