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A Triumphant Rigoletto at The Berkshire Opera Festival

Nélida Nassar  09.11.2018

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The Berkshire Opera Festival has launched its third annual offering, Verdi’s perennial favorite Rigoletto, with three sold-out performances. Going to the opera is always exhilarating, especially in a newly discovered venue, in this case the elegant, recently renovated Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield. We must admit our expectations were not high, so one can imagine how greatly we were surprised to find ourselves attending a production rivaling in quality those put on by the Metropolitan Opera.

Maestro Brian Garman’s subtle, imaginative conducting is one major reason for the production’s success. Both orchestra and chorus followed him perfectly, and the remarkably fluid execution of the score, without any disruption in continuity, kept the emphasis on the opera’s overall coherence. Extremely attentive to the singers, Garman uses rubato intelligently, and he knows how to make the orchestra whisper so it never overpowers the soloists, all the while relentlessly building up drama created by  Sparafucile’s curse.     

Director Jonathon Loy’s concept is based on a simple transposition, taking us from the court of the Duke of Mantua to our world, mainly through an astute use of minimalism. Here, the dance is lead by the clown Rigoletto, sometimes truculent and sometimes bitter, but always remaining true to the libretto. In achieving his vision, Loy is helped by Stephen Dobay’s strong yet simple and consistent design. The set, composed of a large rectangle with two side flaps, has two symmetrical openings, one vertical and one horizontal, separated by a central line. Each of these elements is illuminated with different colors. This architectural structure is self-contained, not only incorporates the supertitles but is a cricial part of the scenography. One’s reading of the structure varies as the opera unfolds through the clever collaboration of Dobay and lighting designer John Froelich. Together they conjure James Turell’s experimentation with light and Tadao Ando’s architecture of light — very appropriately, as these artists have a strong presence in the area, Turell at MASS MoCA and Ando at the Clark Art Institute. The light palette unites the spiritual world and the ephemeral, physical world. The scenography becomes a succession of various light paintings of great plastic beauty and poetic force emphasizing the singing of both soloists and choir. The use of the lighting is so effective that one actually senses oneself sensing and sees oneself seeing. 

Romanian-born baritone Sebastian Catana, playing the title role, stole the show. Familiar with much of the Verdian repertoire, he also sang Schaunard in La Bohème and Valentin in Faust at the Met before making his European debut in 2007. In addition, he appears regularly at the Arena di Verona and various opera houses in Italy. Catana’s voice is indeed powerful and well projected, but he has many other virtues, especially an incisive diction and a fine balance over his entire vocal range. He inhabits the role of the hunchback with a naturalness that shows his great familiarity with it. Beyond just conveying the jester’s physical deformity, he performs with such dramatic force and such intensity that he is convincing at every moment – not least in the display of emotional tenderness towards his daughter.  His voice is full-bodied, seductive and always truthful to the character.

Maria Valdes sang the role of Gilda for the first time in San Francisco when a colleague fell ill. While outwardly she looks very fragile, she matches her father in terms of volume and is never vocally overwhelmed by him, not even in the first act. The young soprano has a remarkable tone and is capable of great expressiveness, delivering a “caro nome” of appropriate modesty and precision, with masterful trills and staccati in the particularly outstanding final scene. She easily negotiates the difficulties of the role, and the freshness of her interpretation is due as much to the beauty of her clear, velvety timbre, and her remarkable ease in singing the high notes and trebles, as to her stage presence, which is still marked by a certain youthful fragility. Ms. Valdes portrays a Gilda barely out of childhood, which only reinforces the cruelty of the violence of which she is victim.

Called upon this season by the Tanglewood Music Festival and the Boston Symphony Orchestra to replace the suffering Piotr Beczala, Jonathan Tetelman is a rising tenor who sings the Duke of Mantua. (He is the second-place winner of the 2018 New York International Vocal Competition.) Right from his first entrance, we are aware of his alluring stage presence and of a voice which is more full-bodied than is usually encountered in this role. Yet, somehow he captivated us less than the other soloists, perhaps because this is his first appearance as the Duke. In any case, his repertoire is currently centered on Rodolpho in La Bohème, Cavaradossi in Tosca and Don José in Carmen. His voice clearly has the required power in the high register, but the timbre is singularly lacking in color, flexibility and brilliance in the medium register, as, for example, in “È il sol dell’anima” and “Parmi veder le lagrime.” This is all the more disappointing inasmuch as he is a good actor, alternating charm and weakness with ease, and has a very impressive physique. However, he also knows how to lighten his voice, making it dangerously caressing, and we understand why Gilda cannot resist him.

The supporting roles are well distributed. Josef Barron masters without any problem the range of Sparafucile, summoning up appropriately dark colors for this assassin and making him more frightening than ever. His sister Maddalena finds in Maya Lahyani a perfect interpreter, with the necessary strain of vulgarity.  Her “Bella figlia dell’amore” is also one of the summits of the performance. John Cheek’s enraged Count Monterone impresses with his convincing physical and vocal presence. The rest of the distribution is quite good, without any weak elements.

The chorus is vocally powerful and its costumes are well chosen. Whether functioning as the group of courtiers or as the choir humming during the storm scene it shines by its commitment and precision. All the elements of this new production strike the right chord, and there are no superfluous embellishments. It fully merits the enthusiastic reception it received from the audience.

Director: Jonathon Loy
Scenic Designer: Stephen Dobay
Lighting Designer: John Froelich
Costume Designer: Charles R. Caine
Rigoletto: Sebastian Catana, baritone
Gilda: Maria Valdes, soprano
Duke of Mantua: Jonathan Tetelman, tenor
Sparafucile: Joseph Barron, bass-baritone
Maddalena: Maya Lahyani, mezzo-soprano
Giovanna: Mary Ellen Verdi
Count Monterone: John Cheek, bass-baritone
Borsa Matteo: Joshua Sander, tenor
Marullo: Nicholas Martorano, baritone
Page: Erin Nafziger, soprano