GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Rigoletto—Robert Overman (Rigoletto), Amy Maples (Gilda), René Barbera (il Duca di Mantova), Brian Banion (Sparafucile), Kristin Schwecke (Maddalena, la contessa di Ceprano), Jaclyn Surso (Giovanna), Donald Hartmann (il conte di Monterone), Cody Monta’ (Marullo), Simon Petersson (Matteo Borsa), Joshua Conyers (il conte di Ceprano), Patrick Scully (Un usciere di corte), Lindsay Mecher (Un paggio della Duchessa); Piedmont Opera Chorus; Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra; James Allbritten, conductor [Steven LaCosse, Stage Director; Elizabeth Fowle, Choreographer; David P. Gordon, Scenic Designer; Norman Coates, Lighting Designer; Martha Ruskai, Wig and Make-up Designer; Piedmont Opera, The Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Friday, 23 October 2015]
130 years after his death, Victor Hugo is still widely—and rightly—regarded as one of France's most important writers. Acclaimed for his poetry, plays, and the genre-defining novels Notre-Dame de Paris, Les Misérables, and, perhaps his finest but certainly not most familiar work, Les Travailleurs de la mer, Hugo was accustomed to political and cultural adversity but not to seeing his work eclipsed. Set in a fanciful incarnation of the court of François I, where one of the king's mistresses, Françoise de Foix, was intriguing enough to inspire an opera by Donizetti, Hugo's Le roi s'amuse created a sensation when it premièred on 22 November 1832—a sensation significant enough to ensure that the regime of Louis Philippe I, ostensibly responding to perceived insults to His Majesty, banned the play before its second performance. Le roi s'amuse would ultimately wait fifty years to take the stage for the second time. By that time, it could have been debated whether the impetus for the revival was wholly an homage to the esteemed Hugo or at least partially curiosity about the long-unseen play that inspired one of the most successful operas of the mid-Nineteenth Century, Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto. Verdi's opera had its own troubles with the Austrian censors in Venice in advance of its first performance: Francesco Maria Piave's libretto, as faithful an adaptation of its source as has even been prepared for the operatic stage, was deemed as offensive to the the crowned heads in Vienna as Hugo's play was to those in Paris. Though his 1844 Ernani was lauded as an uncommonly adroit setting of the writer's work, it was Rigoletto that solidified Verdi's reputation as the ideal composer to unite Hugo's words with music. Not even the cloud of bureaucratic disapprobation that relocated the drama from France to Mantua could tarnish the brilliant sheen of the première of Rigoletto at Venice's Teatro La Fenice on 11 March 1851, however. So certain was Verdi that he had written a hit tune that would be immediately commandeered by gondoliers and street musicians that he sequestered Raffaele Mirate, the rôle's creator, for rehearsals of the Duca's Act Three canzone 'La donna è mobile.' He was correct, of course, but, in truth, Rigoletto was revealed to be a work of incredible beauty and power from the score's first page to its last. Anyone who has bothered to read it would be unlikely to dispute that Hugo's Le roi s'amuse is a well-written work worthy of its creator, but Verdi's transformation of Hugo's Triboulet and Blanche into Rigoletto and Gilda is the foundation of one of opera's most enduring masterworks. In recent years, it has often seemed that an astonishing number of productions of Rigoletto have sought to convince audiences that their affection for the opera is predicated upon misjudgments of the score's merit. History recounts that Hugo envied the skill with which Verdi delineated each character’s voice and perspective in Rigoletto's iconic quartet, 'Bella figlia dell'amore,' but it is unlikely that a man as dedicated as Hugo to preserving artists’ individuality and creative freedom at all costs could have witnessed the contrasting popularity of Verdi’s opera and neglect of his own play without disappointment. Winston-Salem-based Piedmont Opera offered a Rigoletto on the stage of the Stevens Center that could not have failed to delight both Verdi and Hugo. For all its complications, Rigoletto is essentially a simple tale of distorted love. By focusing not on reimagining Rigoletto from some arbitrary, ‘modern’ point of view but on recreating the opera as it emerged from Verdi’s imagination, Piedmont Opera’s production allowed the audience to appreciate in Rigoletto the Shakespearean majesty that Verdi recognized in Hugo’s Triboulet.
Bella figlia dell’amore: Soprano Kristin Schwecke as Maddalena in Piedmont Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, October 2015 [Photo © by Traci Arney Photography; used with permission]
Hugo’s countryman Molière wrote that ‘of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive.’ Opera is indeed a commodity that is extraordinarily expensive to produce, promote, and enjoy, but Piedmont Opera’s Rigoletto confirmed anew that the extensive budgets of large opera companies do not necessarily facilitate productions richer than those created by America’s regional companies. Directed by Steven LaCosse and choreographed by Elizabeth Fowle, the production provided enough detail to conjure a specific atmosphere without cluttering the opera's physical or ephemeral spaces with distractions. The purest requirement of blocking is placing characters where they are meant to be, when they are meant to be there, and Piedmont Opera's production was particularly commendable for drawing inspiration foremost from Verdi’s score. Only the vicious beating of Giovanna during the courtiers’ abduction of Gilda seemed a misguided and unnecessary extrapolation. David P. Gordon's sets gave the Duca di Mantova's testosterone-infused court suitably decadent surroundings, framing the action effectively but unobtrusively and picturesquely bringing the sights of Mantua to the Stevens Center stage. The costumes by Malabar Limited successfully employed bright primary colors for the Duca and his attendants, earthy tones for Rigoletto and Sparafucile, and virginal blue and white and, in Act Three, opulent emerald for Gilda to draw visual parallels with the characters' functions in the drama. These elements of the staging, as well as Martha Ruskai’s wigs and make-up, seemed extensions of the polished work in the pit by Allbritten and the Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra. The conductor presided over a taut, unsentimental reading of Verdi’s score, executed with laudably few mistakes by the Symphony’s instrumentalists. Allbritten supported the singers with obvious understanding both of the mechanics of singing and of the singular demands of singing Rigoletto. The choristers matched the achievements of their colleagues in the pit with lusty, dexterous singing. Wholly convincing as the hard-partying companions of the Duca, the choristers gave a superb performance of one of the score’s finest inspirations, the storm scene in Act Three. With Allbritten building an unshakable foundation, the orchestra and chorus providing a frame of reliable accomplishment, and the production team decorating that frame enchantingly, Piedmont Opera’s Rigoletto unmistakably conveyed what so many larger companies’ productions conspicuously lack: the spirit of Verdi.
Bella salvatrice: Soprano Amy Maples as Gilda in Piedmont Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, October 2015 [Photo © by Traci Arney Photography; used with permission]
In filling the ranks of supporting characters, Piedmont Opera's production tapped North Carolina's bounteous lodes of native and adopted vocal talent. Fellows of the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute of the University of North Carolina’s School of the Arts made especially strong showings, led by soprano Kristin Schwecke, who sparred seductively with the Duca as the Contessa di Ceprano in Act One and returned in Act Three as a beguiling Maddalena. Schwecke delivered ‘Somiglia un Apollo, quel giovane, io l’amo, ei m’ama…riposi…nè più l’uccidiamo,’ Maddalena’s plea for Sparafucile to spare the Duca’s life, with alluring tone, lacking only complete solidity at the bottom of the line. The Duca's courtiers were in this production a raucous lot who nonetheless preserved a measure of the decorum befitting a duke's court. The Duca is a libertine, to be sure, but a married one, and there is nothing in the score to suggest that his Duchessa would suffer her household to be run both inwardly and outwardly like a bawdy establishment. Baritone Cody Monta’ sang Marullo with unstinting force complemented by the vivacity of tenor Simon Petersson’s depiction of Borsa. Recently acclaimed for his portrayal of the title rôle in Opera Wilmington's production of Rigoletto, baritone Joshua Conyers was in Winston-Salem a Conte di Ceprano who could not be ignored. His garnet-hued voice hurled out every note that Verdi allocated to him with tonal focus and dramatic purpose: the Duca who would dare to toy with this Count's Countess is an unscrupulous fool without the good sense to fear for his own safety. Soprano Jaclyn Surso was a model of good-natured perturbation as Giovanna, Gilda’s duenna, and Lindsay Mecher deployed her attractive mezzo-soprano impressively as the Duchessa’s page. Following his colleagues’ examples, bass Patrick Scully made the most of the usher’s brief contribution.
Equally at home in Rossinian comedy and Verdian tragedy, bass-baritone Donald Hartmann was a Conte di Monterone who made the embittered old man's curse far more than an opportunity for vaguely-pitched shouting. His singing of ‘La voce mia qual tuono vi scuoterà dovunque’ boiled with righteous indignation and an unquenchable longing for revenge for his daughter’s disgrace. Hartmann rose to the top F in Monterone’s curse with galvanizing force. In Act Two, his flinty voicing of ‘Poiché fosti invano da me maledetto, né un fulmine o un ferro colpisce il tuo pette’ was the catalyst that sent the drama hurtling over the precipice to its tragic conclusion. Hartmann was a phenomenal antidote to the seemingly endless parade of tired, wobbly Monterones.
Assassino sonoro: Bass-baritone Brian Banion as Sparafucile in Piedmont Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, October 2015 [Photo © by Traci Arney Photography; used with permission]
Brian Banion's ironclad bass-baritone voice found a near-ideal outlet in Verdi's music for the assassin-for-hire Sparafucile, via which the singer disclosed a facet of his artistry unlike those that have coruscated in his performances of less-deadly parts. In the wonderful duet with Rigoletto in Act One, Banion portrayed an eerily menacing figure who sang of taking lives as though he were describing sunrises over Arcadian landscapes. His low F when repeating Sparafucile’s name was chilling—and, unlike similar efforts by many singers, audible. In Act Three, Banion’s nonchalance when preparing to murder the Duca was starkly imposing but not without a suggestion of dark comedy. Like Hartmann’s Monterone, his Sparafucile was a source of vocal fortitude all the more welcome for being atypically dependable.
Duca seducente: Tenor René Barbera as il Duca di Mantova in Piedmont Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, October 2015 [Photo © by Traci Arney Photography; used with permission]
Having thrilled local audiences with his vibrant bel canto singing as Tonio in Greensboro Opera's January 2015 production of Donizetti's La fille du régiment [reviewed here], tenor René Barbera, an alumnus of the UNC School of the Arts, returned to the Triad to portray the womanizing Duca di Mantova in Piedmont Opera's Rigoletto. The same people who assume that Calàf does nothing of interest in Turandot until he sings 'Nessun dorma' in Act Three perhaps also think that the Duca is dormant until being roused to sing 'La donna è mobile' in Rigoletto's Act Three. In the first few minutes of the opera, Verdi encapsulated the Duca's predictably philandering character in an irresistibly tuneful ballata, ‘Questa o quella per me pari sono.’ Leaving no doubt about the nature of the Duca's designs on the Contessa di Ceprano, Barbera sang the number insouciantly, phrasing the ebullient melody with playful sensuality. In the Duca’s duet with Gilda, Barbera’s voice radiated the golden smile of a young man in love. His ‘Uscire!…adesso!…Ora che accendene un fuoco istesso!’ was charming, and the tenor’s timbre gleamed in his voicing of the cantabile ‘È il sol dell’anima, la vita è amore, sua voce è il palpito del nostro core.’ Taking leave of his beloved, this Duca could barely contain his boyish ardor in his rapturous ‘Addio! speranza ed anima sol tu sarai per me,’ Barbera joining his Gilda on a glorious unison top D♭. Opening Act Two with a fervent account of the recitative ‘Ella mi fu rapita,’ he catapulted the scene to a sublime performance of the Duca’s aria ‘Parmi veder le lagrime scorrenti da quel ciglio,’ Verdi’s finest music for the character. Barbera managed to elicit appreciation of the Duca’s noble qualities without ignoring the vein of depravity that precipitates the opera’s tragedy. Thankfully, Piedmont Opera’s production allowed Barbera to sing a verse of the Duca’s cabaletta, ‘Possente amor mi chiama,’ and it was among the evening’s musical pinnacles. In this performance, the over-familiar Act Three canzone ‘La donna è mobile’ sounded winningly spontaneous, and Barbera launched the traditional interpolated top B into the house exhilaratingly. His ‘Un dì, se ben rammentomi, o bella, t’incontrai’ wooed Maddalena with zeal that persisted into the quartet. He traced the supple bel canto lines of ‘Bella figlia dell’amore, schiavo son dei vezzi tuoi’ with elegance and agility, rising effortlessly to the top Bs on which so many tenors flounder. The same tone resonantly crowned the reprise of ‘La donna è mobile’—in Verdi’s score this time round—that awakened Rigoletto to the sickening reality that it is not the Duca’s body that Sparafucile has delivered to him. Barbera is the rare singer who uses projection as ably as volume to fill a space with sound. He sang the Duca’s music without forcing his lyric instrument, but his Duca was a formidable presence whose personality leapt over the footlights.
Speranza ed anima sol tu sarai per me: Soprano Amy Maples as Gilda (left) and tenor René Barbera as il Duca di Mantova (right) in Piedmont Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto, October 2015 [Photo © by Christina Holcomb Photography, LLC; used with permission]
An astonishing array of voices have successfully sung Gilda in the years since Rigoletto's première, ranging from high coloraturas in the tradition of Dame Nellie Melba, Amelita Galli-Curci, and Lily Pons to more substantial voices like those of Maria Callas and Dame Joan Sutherland. The voice of Teresa Brambilla, the soprano who created Gilda for Verdi at La Fenice in 1851, was perhaps of dimensions that placed it somewhere near the center of the spectrum between those extremes. Intriguingly, one of Brambilla's most admired portrayals prior to the first performance of Rigoletto was her Agnese in Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda, a seconda donna rôle composed to complement Giuditta Pasta's singing of the title rôle and, like her cousin Adalgisa in Norma, now traditionally assigned to a mezzo-soprano. Perhaps there was greater validity in Arturo Toscanini's preference for a dramatic voice in Gilda's music—he famously engaged Zinka Milanov to sing the part in a 1944 Madison Square Garden concert performance of Act Three of Rigoletto—than many commentators have been willing to acknowledge. Many of the high notes associated with Gilda in listeners' minds are interpolations, after all, and in moments of direst histrionic duress she has propulsive orchestrations with which to contend. Still, the trills, flexibility, and limpidity of tone demanded by the music necessitate the casting of singers with exemplary technical prowess. Piedmont Opera's production benefited tremendously from the participation of Tennessee-born soprano Amy Maples, a youthfully comely Gilda who met every technical challenge unflinchingly, mostly offered sufficient power when required, and from her first appearance commanded observers' sympathy with acting that made even stock gestures actions of emotional meaning. Bounding onto the stage at the beginning of Gilda's duet with Rigoletto in Act One, Maples met her stage father with a ‘Mio padre!’ that was breathless with excitement but perfectly-placed vocally. The anticipation that shone in her starlit articulation of ‘Voi sospirate! che v’ange tanto?’ established an atmosphere of concentrated emotion in which she unfurled a velvety ribbon of tone in ‘Lassù in cielo presso Dio veglia un angiul protettor.’ Few Rigolettos and Gildas make the connection between father and daughter, who is the sole tangible reminder of her mother, more heartbreakingly tender than it was in this performance. Trading the protective but oppressive arms of her father for those of her suitor, Maples's Gilda seemed a different person in the duet with the Duca, at once a naïve girl and a woman of blossoming sexuality. She wedded her luscious tones with Barbera's in their exuberant ‘Addio! speranza ed anima sol tu sarai per me,' the rocketing top D♭ an organic expression of the love swelling her heart. After a recitative in which she strayed from a few of Verdi’s indicated pitches, Maples’s performance of Gilda's E-major aria ‘Caro nome che il mio cor festi primo palpitar’ was an intimate reverie that she distinguished with sparkling trills and crystalline top Bs. Having produced a beautiful top D♯ in the aria's cadenza, she preferred Verdi's written ending to a gaudy top E, her expertly-sustained trill proving more memorable than any interpolated high note might have been. Of a completely different ethos was the ‘Mio padre!’ with which the abused Gilda greeted Rigoletto in Act Two. The arching, achingly lovely melodic lines of ‘Tutte le feste al tempio mentre pregava Iddio’ inspired Maples to vocalism of impeccable poise and time-stopping expressivity, the sheer beauty of her singing enhancing her demonstration of the pain of lost innocence. The top E♭ with which she brought down the curtain on Act Two was the exclamation of a gentle soul who hoped that her heartfelt singing of ‘O mio padre, qual gioia feroce balenarvi negli occhi vegg’io!’ might succeed in soothing her father’s lethal ire. In Act Three, the despair of the quartet, capped with a dulcet top D♭, gave way to unchangeable determination in her declaration of ‘Che! piange tal donna! né a lui darò aita!’ in the trio with Maddalena and Sparafucile. Only here did she struggle to be heard above Verdi’s orchestrations. The pathos of the final duet, in which Maples phrased ‘Ah, ch’io taccia! a me, a lui perdonate’ with unerring assurance, was gripping. The deaths of operatic characters are often fodder for derision, but Maples’s Gilda expired without melodramatics. In that, she died as she lived, eloquently and candidly.
Padre e figlia: Baritone Robert Overman as Rigoletto (left) and soprano Amy Maples as Gilda (right) in Piedmont Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, October 2015 [Photo © by Traci Arney Photography; used with permission]
Rigoletto is a fundamental point in the astounding progression of Verdi's music for the baritone voice that extended from Nabucco and Macbeth to Jago and Falstaff. The ambivalence of individuals' struggles with dueling public personas and private anguishes that captivated Verdi throughout his career is at the core of his characterization of Rigoletto, and it was the central pedestal upon which baritone Robert Overman balanced his performance of the rôle. It was apparent at his first entrance that Overman's Rigoletto was a quick-tempered opportunist with an insult on the tip of his tongue for every person he encountered. His taunting of Monterone culminated in a piercing cry of 'Quel vecchio maledivami,' the sting of the old man's curse having penetrated his verbal armor. Overman intertwined his voice with Banion's mesmerizingly in the duet with Sparafucile, Rigoletto's distaste for his new acquaintance's vocation turning to shock as, in the course of the first of his monologues, ‘Pari siamo! io la lingua, egli ha il pugnale,’ he reflected on the similarities between the character assassination of his own trade and Sparafucile's literal murders. Overman's whole demeanor changed with the first 'Figlia!' in the duet with Gilda. Rigoletto the doting father received from the baritone an impersonation of rapt concentration and dedication: that Gilda was this Rigoletto's sole reason for fleeting happiness was touchingly apparent. In the duet's expansive andante, Overman phrased ‘Deh, non parlare al misero del suo perduto bene’ with fluidity that heightened the emotional devastation of the text. Instructing Giovanna to guard Gilda closely, his stern singing of ‘Ah, veglia, o donna, questo fiore che a te puro confidai’ was underpinned by a disquieting presentiment of looming tragedy. Realizing at last that his comrades at the Duca's court had abducted Gilda, Overman's cries of ‘Ah! ah! ah! la maledizione!’ ended Act One explosively. Generally secure and impactful, Overman's tone was occasionally pushed at the top of the range, but the results that the effort achieved were pulse-quickening. He delivered the potent Act Two oration ‘Cortigiani, vil razza dannata, per qual prezzo vendeste il mio bene?’ with startling gravity and animalistic drive that were tempered arrestingly by the heartbreak of his wounded, wistful voicing of 'Miei signori, perdono, pietate!’ The last vestige of this Rigoletto's pride was annihilated by his reunion with his now-dishonored daughter, his own shame resounding in Overman's voice as he declaimed 'Ah! Solo per me l’infamia a te chiedeva, o Dio.’ Even as he comforted Gilda with a gorgeously unhurried ‘Piangi, fanciulla, piangi,’ the lust for vengeance blunted the edges of this Rigoletto's paternal compassion. Overman launched ‘Sì, vendetta, tremenda vendetta di quest’anima è solo desio’ as though firing notes and words from a mortar, his rejections of Gilda's entreaties for mercy evoking the inexorable resolution of the opera. His top A♭ rang with the brilliance of a Robert Merrill or Cornell MacNeil. At the start of Act Three, Overman's singing was infused with the frustration of a parent whose child will not listen to reason, and he shaped Rigoletto's lines in the quartet with a sense of burgeoning panic. The near-sadistic glee with which he enunciated ‘Ora mi guarda, o mondo! Quest’è un buffone, ed un potente è questo!’ after collecting from Sparafucile what he assumed to be the corpse of the murdered Duca shimmered with irony. Discovering that the figure in the bloody sack is not the Duca but Rigoletto's own daughter, Overman lent his utterance of ‘Mia figlia!…Dio! mia figlia!’ an unforgettable poignancy. The rawness of his pleading ‘No, lasciarmi non dêi, non morir’ was juxtaposed with the brawny loveliness of the tones with which he sang the line. Then, Gilda dead in his arms, he detonated a volcanic 'Ah, la maledizione!’ that thundered through the auditorium. Too often, a Rigoletto's success is measured solely by the parameters of his singing of the two monumental arias or his mastery of the injurious tessitura. Singing the arias well and scaling the heights of the range that they require are surely estimable feats, but there is more to Rigoletto than a pair of viscerally invigorating scenes and stimulating top notes. Overman’s performance revealed that his physical deformity is perhaps the least of Rigoletto’s challenges. The greatest tragedy of this Rigoletto was that, though he was cognizant of his own shortcomings, he was clearly powerless to change himself or his environment: barbed words were the sole defense left to this broken soul. Overman’s dramatic sincerity and musicality should be models to many a Rigoletto, but the foremost joy of his performance was that it was a portrait of a man, not an archetype.
Pari siamo: Baritone Robert Overman in the title rôle in Piedmont Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, October 2015 [Photo © by Traci Arney Photography; used with permission]
This is a world in which the scorn of some supposedly enlightened personages compels listeners who love Rigoletto to feel that they must apologize for what is perceived as a shamefully unsophisticated affection. In truth, there have been many productions of the opera in recent years that warranted apologies to singers, audiences, and, above all, Verdi and Hugo. Opera is a wondrous study in implausibilities, and Rigoletto is not and was surely never meant to be a history of people that audiences are expected to recognize or accept as familiars. When performed with respect for the depths of feeling that Verdi instilled in its characters, however, Rigoletto is a work of real insight and sagacity. Its realism is not that of trips to the supermarket and unread emails: it is the universal condition of loving and hoping to be loved. Piedmont Opera's Rigoletto achieved the relevance for which so many productions strive by granting love for the music primacy from the smallest nail in the sets to the grandest bellow from the timpani. It is no coincidence that it was Victor Hugo who wrote that ‘the greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.’ Nearly as great was the happiness born of experiencing Rigoletto so lovingly performed.