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Rigoletto: Greensboro Opera’s Production Balanced and Satisfying

by William Thomas Walker

November 2, 2007, Greensboro, NC: A spokesman announced from the War Memorial Auditorium stage that this production of Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) was the twenty-sixth for the Greensboro Opera Company. The substantial audience got full value for their tickets from an unusually well-balanced cast, an imaginative focus on the drama, and effective costumes and sets, all supported by superb playing by members of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra.

Artistic Director Valéry Ryvkin conducted the orchestra superbly while keeping tight co-ordination with the action on the stage. Among the many fine supporting solos by principal players were those by oboist Mary Ashley Barret, clarinetist Kelly Burke, trumpeter Anita Cirba, flutist Debra Reuter-Pivetta, and cellist Beth Vanderborgh.

Director Vernon Hartman made several significant changes of emphasis or focus from the well-worn traditional approach. His Gilda and Rigoletto are darker and more deeply flawed characters. According to Hartman’s interesting program note “On Directing Rigoletto,” Gilda “is petulant, manipulative, annoying (not without reason), obstinate, and easily deluded.” This is a far cry from the usual insipid innocent in the throws of infatuation. Hartman’s Rigoletto “is ever the twisted, selfish, malevolent soul,” keeping his daughter locked away like “a porcelain figurine.” The traditional Rigoletto is “a loving, dotting father,” trapped in a despicable job because of his physical deformity. One of Verdi’s working titles for this opera was “La Maledizione” ("The Curse"), which is delivered by the wronged father, Monterone, in Act I.
The “curse,” played by the orchestra, haunts several important scenes, not least the final moments of the opera. To heighten the relationship between the two fathers, Monterone and Rigoletto, Hartman “interpolate(s) the character of Monterone’s daughter into the first scene proceedings. Her public humiliation and degradation, orchestrated by Rigoletto, is clear irony.”

All the lead roles were cast from strength and were complimented by solid performances from the supporting cast of singers and extras. The Raleigh through Charlotte “cultural crescent” has had a number of fine productions over the decades. So have the major venues in Richmond, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina. Baritone Todd Thomas’s portrayal of Rigoletto, the hunch-backed clown, was one of the strongest and most dramatically and vocally complete I have had the pleasure to witness anywhere in the region. Thomas’ voice is at the ideal time of maturity, still fresh and even in its production and having the life and stage experience to deploy that vocal capital with intelligence. In keeping with Hartman’s more brutal vision, the opera lover feels far less sympathy for this dark-souled and malicious clown as his life changes from the brutalizer to the brutalized.

Slight reservations about the unique timbre of tenor Matthew Chellis’s voice during the first scene’s “Questa o quella” vanished as his strong characterization began to have its impact as his Duke courted Gilda as Gualtier Maldè, an impoverished student. His opening “Parmi veder le lagrime” in Act II was a perfect example of melding drama and singing. Chellis’ Duke is in his cups, feeling sorry for himself for having missed the chance to make a move on Gilda. Chellis’ delivery was like overhearing an intimate soliloquy. The essence of this heartless womanizer is encapsulated in the Duke’s Act III aria, “La donna é mobile,” which Chellis seemed to toss off just as casually as he did the cards he was pulling from a deck. Instead of pulling out all the stops to create a show-stopper for applause, his whole performance was gauged fully to reveal the Duke’s character and not to display ringing high notes.

As Gilda, soprano Kristen Plumley had plenty of vocal power to hold her own in ensembles or to soar evenly to her highest notes. She brought a rich variety of colors and dynamics to Gilda’s lone solo aria in the opera, “Caro nome,” in Act I, scene 2. In her Act II, scene 1, duet with Rigoletto, “Tutte le feste al tempio,” Plumley painted a complex image of Gilda torn between her infatuation with the “poor student” and her ravishment by the Duke. Her final act of idiotic self-sacrifice was almost believable — no mean feat!

The villainous brother and sister, Sparaficile and Maddalena, were taken by experienced low-oiced singers. Bass Craig Hart had the rock-steady sepulchral sound for the oddly ethical murderer for hire. As the voluptuous Maddalena, mezzo-soprano Cheri Rose Katz’s lush, full sound bordered on that of a true contralto. She had earlier used a much lighter sound to portray Gilda’s bribable nurse, Giovanna. Bass-baritone David Langan was aptly menacing as Monterone, casting down “the Curse” like Moses’ first set of law tablets.

The fine supporting cast consisted of tenor David Ronis as Borsa, soprano Elizabeth Williams-Grayson as the lusty Countess Ceprano, baritone Scott MacLeod as Marullo, baritone Jeffrey Catlson as Count Ceprano, and soprano Elena DeAngelis as the Page. The chorus and extras were effectively choreographed by the veteran Elissa Fuchs, associated with the GOC from its begining. The imaginative set, designed by Allen Charles Klein, was effectively lighted by John Horner. This was especially true of the famous threatening storm in Act III, with its wordless chorus evoking the wind. The chorus master was Robert Wells, and the diction of his charges was crystal clear... — except when wordless! Bravo to all!

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