By Rosie Rogers
Directed by Kathleen Belcher, Florida Grand Opera’s most recent production of Verdi’s Rigoletto — seen at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale on March 31 — was enjoyable overall, with experienced baritone Todd Thomas in the title role elevating the show.
Placed in its traditional setting, long trains of dresses, towering stone walls, and a multicolored jester effectively zipped the audience back to 16th-century Mantua. Rigoletto’s home stood out in its calm and beauty, with dappled shadows and flowering vines providing a soft backdrop for Gilda’s introduction. The second act set’s looming pillars and heavy burgundy curtains matched the plot’s darkening tone, while the third act’s derelict alley created a shantytown aesthetic that contrasted well with the sumptuous court of Mantua.
Belcher’s staging was consistently clear and effective. Gilda’s handkerchief was visually established and then followed through as she wiped her father’s brow in the first act, we saw it left behind in the house when she was kidnapped, and it later appeared in the court to confirm her presence there to Rigoletto. The coherence of the staging created a particularly juicy moment of intense dramatic irony at the end of the opera, when Rigoletto celebrated over a dying Gilda in a satisfying and extremely taut moment.
While the orchestra was occasionally reluctant to match conductor Pacien Mazzagatti’s speed, every instrumental solo was beautiful, the brass’s energetic fanfares and volume filled the hall, and each iteration of the “curse” motive rang clear with proper significance.
The male chorus in particular was not always matched exactly by the orchestra. Both could have been softer in the sneaking “Zitti, zitti” at the end of the first act, but they achieved a good contrast of volume despite this. The chorus was at its best creating a properly spooky atmosphere for the storm in Act 3.
Playing the Duke of Mantua, Jose Simerilla Romero sang with ease, but not especially powerfully. Although I sometimes wanted more colors and greater liberties, his singing was consistent, light, and effortless with a beautiful sound. His upward leaps were light and jovial in the opening “Questa o quella,” and his phrasing became more convincing as the opera progressed. The famous “La donna e mobile” was solidly done and delighted the audience.
Neil Nelson swept down the long staircase as the forbidding Count Monterone, dressed in luxurious black and furs. His vibrato occasionally became slightly belabored on the lowest notes, but it suited the character.
Heralded by a dark introduction of buzzing strings and pulsing woodwinds, Matt Boehler’s Sparafucile stalked around the stage with a threatening, heavy gait. His gorgeous tone and excellent project combined with his imposing figure to create a deliciously scary assassin.
Sharleen Joynt made a youthful and innocent Gilda, played with the naivete and charm of a Disney princess. Although her brightness of timbre sometimes became a little strident, she more than made up for this with flawless phrasing and musicality. Joynt sang with a luxurious rubato and was sensitive and responsive to her fellow actors and to the orchestra.
Todd Thomas, as Rigoletto, sang with complete mastery of the music. Particularly impressive was his enormous palette of tone colors, which combined with a large dynamic capability and great acting to project mocking, love, anguish, fury, and despair with ease. His vast range of timbres was evident throughout the show: he discovered Gilda’s handkerchief in the court and his voice instantly shifted to a horrified whisper, and he created a biting irony when he sang of revenge above darkly cheerful music.
In another show of his technical ability, Thomas used subtle pitch bends to advantage to increase tension and push towards resolution. In the final scene of the opera, his singing felt organic, conveying speech, shouts, and whispers all while maintaining clear pitch and direction.
The dramatic quartet in Act 3 (“Bella figlia d’amore”) emerged organically and had good balance between all voices. The contrasts of timbre distinguish each clearly, with rich and throaty mezzo of Stephanie Doche’s Maddalena contrasting particularly well with Joynt’s brighter sound.
Thomas’s final duet with Gilda was wonderful, and Joynt’s high timbre made her seem especially young, increasing the tragedy of the moment. Together they took the perfect amount of time, and the show ended on a high with its two strongest voices.
While the production was executed well overall, Thomas’s Rigoletto stood out as the most captivating and powerful performance, making the show a triumph.