A magnificent central role performance and some marvelous supporting voices made Palm Beach Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto one to admire and remember.
Returning to this 1851 mega-hit after an absence of nine years, the troupe’s A-cast mounting was led by baritone Michael Chioldi, who should be close to considering Palm Beach Opera his home company. His strong, rich, mellifluous voice keeps getting better each time he appears, and on Sunday afternoon at the Kravis Center, he unleashed an instrument that was huge and powerful from the beginning and that never lost one iota of strength.
Chioldi has been moving into the Verdi dramatic roles in recent years (he did Macbeth for Palm Beach Opera in 2104), and it suits him ideally. In his reading of the tortured man of mirth for whom his daughter is the only thing that keeps him donning the motley every day, Chioldi made Rigoletto’s anguish and fury plain.
As Gilda, the young Andrea Carroll was delightful, with an impressively large, agile and beguiling voice from such a petite person (she’s 5 feet tall). She was Juliet-like in her innocence and the power of her passion, and therefore her sacrifice at the end of Act III seemed quite in character. Her voice was even and accurate in the bel canto effusions of her “Caro nome,” displaying no difficulties in the highest reaches of her range as she turned out round and beautifully shaped melismas.
The Russian tenor Alexey Tatarintsev was a very fine Duke, with a virile, muscular voice that had a thrilling top. His Questa o quella was somewhat sloppy; he rushed through it, forcing Italian conductor Antonello Allemandi to play a few bars of catch-up ball. But he soon reined that in, turning in an excellent performance. His Duke was brash and arrogant, yet at the same time persuasively ardent.
A true standout came in the person of the Slovak bass Štefan Kocán, who sang the finest Sparafucile I have ever heard (and indeed he’s made it one of his specialties). This is a true profondo voice, a giant and rumbling instrument with beautiful dark coloring. With the exception of a slightly wobbly low F on his walk offstage following his first entrance, his singing was marvelous. (You can hear him in this role next month at the Metropolitan Opera and also as the Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni that same month.)
As Maddalena, mezzo Audrey Babcock offered a throaty, lovely voice that she deployed ably in the service of a criminal abettor consumed by desire. She was believably seductive and enamored of her handsome visitor.
In the much-admired “Bella figlia dell’amore” Act III quartet, Babcock, Tatarintsev, Chioldi and Carroll blended with outstanding ensemble. This was sheerly beautiful singing, and it made the ending of the opera that much more poignant.
Matthew Treviño’s Monterone was intelligently sung, and he has a pleasant baritone, but he was underpowered and hard to hear. Andrew Simpson, an opera Young Artist, had a memorable couple lines as Count Ceprano, and baritone Joshua Conyers was an unexpectedly strong Marullo, with a big, hefty voice that it would be good to hear more of soon.
The all-male chorus, prepped by chorus master Greg Ritchey, was quite good, with excellent ensemble and crisp diction as they tell the duke of the abduction they’ve just made, and they were reliable and accurate for their offstage sliding chromatic thirds in the storm music.
Stage director Jay Lesenger, adapting an old New Orleans Opera Company production, kept his courtiers busier than most; they did some line dancing, for one, and he handled the abduction scene logically, with men coming in and out, rather than simply planting a mob in a street.
But Lesenger’s take on the atmosphere of the court was more undergraduate hijinks than a mini-society in decay, and that was to its detriment. The duke’s depravity and Rigoletto’s disgust are easier to believe if the court is creepily licentious, a group of people indulging their worst instincts and finding nothing to check them. There wasn’t any of that in this Disney-fied staging; the only time he explored that part of the duke’s diseased lifestyle was during Act III as he coupled with Maddalena on the table of the hovel she shares with her assassin brother. For an opera in which sex is the crucial motivator, this production was oddly lacking in it.
The production itself looked terrific, in large part because of its use of projections, provided by Michael Baumgarten. During the orchestral prelude, the final scene was foreshadowed, with Monterone standing in the window of the castle’s second floor, Rigoletto cradling a dead Gilda below him, while behind him, blood-red clouds raced across the sky presaging some unspeakable hell to come. Those projections added a lot to the atmosphere of the action, as did a full moon in the sky during the last moments of Act I.
Allemandi did an expert job of leading the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra, which sounded excellent. Allemandi’s reading of the score illustrated why the scores of Verdi’s early maturity were so admired, and are still so beloved today. This is music that never stands still, always giving life and energy to the drama, and that you could notice that while watching this production says something about how solid it was.
Rigoletto has been a popular choice for area opera companies; I think this is the fifth one I’ve seen in the past few years. While this one didn’t have the sexual heat it needed, it did have splendid singing, and overall was probably the best-sung local production I’ve heard of this durable work.