Saturday’s performance of Rigoletto by the Palm Beach Opera was one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. It reached the realms of the divine on occasion. Verdi’s knack of capturing Victor Hugo’s dramatic essence in music and song of this father-daughter relationship is a mark of his genius.
Jay Lesenger’s direction made the action crisp and the story easy to understand. With his clever and original bits of business one need not have known the story to follow the plot. Also commendable was the excellent work from Greg Ritchey’s mens’ chorus. They enjoyed every minute of their time on stage, singing in beautifully crafted nuances, never overdone and with perfect pitch.
The Rigoletto on Saturday night was Russian Alexander Krasnov, a wonderful bass-baritone born in Yekaterinburg. His acting was flawless and his singing was immaculate. His interpretation of the role of possessive father was never cloying, always respectful and he delivered all his arias with a freshness and vocal flexibility the envy of many. From top to bottom his melliflous intonation was delightful to hear. One annoying distraction: his jester’s three-pronged hat kept falling off in Act I.
Gilda, his daughter, was sung by Seattle soprano Deanna Breiwick, her lovely voice crystal clear with a ringing top and a secure middle range. Lesenger, in the famous “Caro nome” aria, has her singing the last few bars grounded, on her back, a realistic position, since she’s reveling in memories of the young man she’s just met — the Duke of Mantua, pretending to be a poor student, Gaultier Maldé — Breiwick nailed every note perfectly and then some, winning rapturous applause.
The duets between father and daughter in Acts I and II were memorable, neither artist overshadowing the other, and both sang with a delicate understanding. They were at times very beautiful and touching performances.
An American-born Indian tenor, athletic Alok Kumar of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., was splendid as the womanizing Duke of Mantua. Famous for the high tessitura Verdi sets for this part, Kumar never disappointed, hitting his high notes cleanly and with what I’d call a romantic timbre. His love of women and the seduction of other mens’ wives was easy to believe with his natural charm, good looks, and tall stature.
However, this young tenor threw his head back in amusement once too often, tending to cut off the air to his vocal passages. His Act III rendition of “La donna è mobile” was nicely done and his interactions with Maddelena in the last act were interestingly understated.
Maddelena, sung by mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock, from Los Angeles, was sexy and seductive. She knew the Duke’s reputation, telling him she was just one of his other 20 conquests. Babcock has a lovely voice and fit right in to this fine production. Her brother, the assassin for hire, Sparafucile, was superbly sung by Štefan Kocán from Slovakia. In all the Rigolettos I have seen, Kocán is the only bass I’ve known to win immediate applause after his first appearance at the beginning of the opera. His deep rich sound is rounded and flexible. The audience loved him.
Bass Matthew Treviño of Austin, Texas, was Count Monterone, who puts the curse on Rigoletto for humiliating cuckolded husbands whilst acting the Duke’s jester. Trevino’s light bass had difficulties that night. In other roles, standouts were Joshua Conyers as Murullo, leader of the mob with an attractive booming baritone. And Tara Curtis as Giovanna, sympathetic nurse to Gilda, with a warm sweet mezzo whose direction by Lesenger was perhaps the best dramatic use of her character I have seen.
The orchestra, conducted by Antonello Allemandi of Milan, responded to his every gesture punctually and they sounded better than ever. The scenery designed by Lawrence Shafer fitted the action perfectly. I liked the way it turned into a street scene. Lighting and projection design by Michael Baumgarten were excellent.
The follow spots let us see the artist’s faces in the darker passages, and his use of a full moon — which moved across the back scrim, later to become a quarter moon — subtly showed the passage of time. Wigs and makeup were by Kathy Waszkelewicz.
This production by Palm Beach Opera achieved near perfection. Everyone involved made it a night to remember.