15 June 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi — RIGOLETTO (Q. Kelsey, E. Morley, S. Costello, A. Jerkunica, Y. Matochkina, E. Kulczak, J. Cha, C. Job, C. Colclough; The Metropolitan Opera, 8 June 2022)

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) mezzo-soprano YULIA MATOCHKINA as Maddalena, tenor STEPHEN COSTELLO as il duca di Mantova, baritone QUINN KELSEY as Rigoletto, and soprano ERIN MORLEY as Gilda in The Metropolitan Opera's 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's RIGOLETTO [Photograph by Jonathan Tichler, © by The Metropolitan Opera]GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): RigolettoQuinn Kelsey (Rigoletto), Erin Morley (Gilda), Stephen Costello (Il duca di Mantova), Ante Jerkunica (Sparafucile), Yulia Matochkina (Maddalena), Edyta Kulczak (Giovanna), Jeongcheol Cha (Il cavaliere Marullo), Scott Scully (Matteo Borsa), Craig Colclough (Il conte di Monterone), Christopher Job (Il conte di Ceprano), Chanáe Curtis (La contessa di Ceprano), Catherine MiEun Choi-Steckmeyer (Un paggio della duchessa), Jonathan Scott (Un usciere di corte); The Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Karen Kamensek, conductor [Bartlett Sher, production; Michael Yeargan, set designer; Catherine Zuber, costume designer; Donald Holder, lighting designer; The Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, New York City, USA; Wednesday, 8 June 2022]

Few short-lived works in literary history have clung to notoriety more lastingly than Victor Hugo’s five-act drama Le roi s’amuse. A fictional account of degeneracy and retribution at the court of Sixteenth-Century Valois-Angoulième king François I, the play’s first performance, staged at the famed Comédie-Française on 22 November 1832, proved to also be its last for a half-century, censorial objections to its themes of depravity and the attempted assassination of a sovereign destining the piece to exile until it returned to the Comédie-Française in 1882 and 1883. In the interim, the scandalous reputation of Le roi s’amuse expanded beyond France’s borders, coming to Giuseppe Verdi’s attention by the time of his receipt in 1850 of a commission from Venice’s Teatro La Fenice for a new opera to perpetuate the string of successes of the second edition of Nabucco, I lombardi alla prima crociata, Ernani (also a setting of a Hugo drama), and Attila, all of which premièred in La Serenissima. On-stage conspiracy to murder a ruling monarch was no more palatable to the Austrian censors by which Venetian theaters were monitored than it had been to French officials two decades earlier, compelling Verdi and his chosen librettist, his frequent collaborator Francesco Maria Piave, to relocate their adaptation of Le roi s’amuse, christened as Rigoletto, from Hugo’s France to the Gonzaga stronghold of Mantua.

Unlike its older brethren amongst Verdi’s creations, many of which lingered in obscurity from the times of their respective premières until the latter half of the Twentieth Century, Rigoletto immediately claimed an irrevocable place in the international repertory. First performed on 11 March 1851, the score quickly conquered the world’s important opera houses, reaching New York slightly less than four years after it was first heard in Venice. Often out of fashion with musicologists, Rigoletto has never fallen out of favor with audiences. Indicative of the opera’s continuing popularity, the present staging of Rigoletto, new to The Metropolitan Opera in the 2021 – 2022 Season, replaced a production that premièred as recently as 2013, and the 8 June performance was the 911th Rigoletto presented by the MET since 16 November 1883. Many works deemed by connoisseurs to be musically and dramatically superior to Verdi’s opera compete for stagings, but resources are repeatedly devoted to new productions and revivals of Rigoletto. Defying critical disapprobation, insightful artists persist in devising new avenues of rejuvenating the melodies and emotions that, as was fitfully the case in this performance, can still sound novel after 171 years.

IN REVIEW: baritone QUINN KELSEY as Rigoletto (left) and soprano ERIN MORLEY as Gilda (right) in The Metropolitan Opera's 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's RIGOLETTO [Photograph by Jonathan Tichler, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Il conforto d’un padre: baritone Quinn Kelsey as Rigoletto (left) and soprano Erin Morley as Gilda (right) in The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto
[Photograph by Jonathan Tichler, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

Though the production was often successful in making dramatic points, Bartlett Sher’s grim new staging too frequently substituted Broadway flair for operatic finesse. The motivations for some details were inexplicable. For instance, what was the implication of Gilda’s companion Giovanna skulking away from Rigoletto’s house, matronly purse on her arm, after her charge was abducted by the Duca’s courtiers? Was she complicit in the kidnapping or fleeing the place after failing to prevent it? Visually, Michael Yeargan’s sets were imposingly beautiful, though the singers might have been happier with fewer stairs with which to contend. The MET’s technological capabilities are extraordinary, but this production’s continuously-revolving scenic elements accomplished little more than displaying the theater’s wizardry. Despite suiting the production’s abiding darkness, Donald Holder’s lighting focused the observer’s attention on the dramatic core of each scene, and, aside from giving Rigoletto the appearance of an antagonist from Batman® comics, Catherine Zuber’s elegant costumes tempered the debauchery of the Duca’s court with a pervasive impression of martial sobriety.

This being the penultimate Rigoletto of the 2021 – 2022 Season, the MET chorus and orchestra were thoroughly prepared and performed their parts with unflagging energy and musicality. As the denizens of the ducal court, the marauding male courtiers, and the wordless voice of the howling wind in Act Three’s temporale, the choristers sang excitingly, creating aural tableaux that in some moments served the drama more faithfully than the staging managed to do. Facing challenges to which they are wholly accustomed, the pit musicians played at the high level expected of them, not always avoiding a suggestion of routine but never surrendering to the kind of fatigue with a piece that can be so injurious to a performance.

Though lacking authentic morbidezza, seldom heard in performances of Verdi operas in the Twenty-First Century, conductor Karen Kamensek’s work exhibited obvious intelligence and scrutiny of Rigoletto’s musical infrastructure. She provided the principals with requisite support, galvanizing the performance’s rhythmic pulse without rushing expansively lyrical passages. Importantly, the music was approached on its own terms: rather than conducting the score with emphasis on ita kinship with the later works to which Rigoletto is now widely declared to be inferior, Kamensek respected the music’s bel canto foundation, particularly in the delicately-written duets in each act for Rigoletto and Gilda. This musical framework supplied the dramatic stability that largely eluded the inconsistently convincing staging.

In this performance, the figures who populate the Duca di Mantova’s court were depicted by an ensemble of gifted singing actors but, marginalized by the production, rarely emerged from the drama’s periphery. A pair of MET choristers, mezzo-soprano Catherine MiEun Choi-Steckmeyer and baritone Jonathan Scott, brought fine voices to the few but significant words uttered by the Paggio who summons the Duca on behalf of the unseen Duchessa and the Usciere who escorts Monterone to the place of his incarceration. Bass-baritone Christopher Job was an appropriately rabblerousing consort for soprano Chanáe Curtis’s glamorous Contessa di Ceprano. This production limits the abilities of the interpreters of the courtiers Borsa and Marullo, to whose compassion Rigoletto appeals in vain after revealing that Gilda is his daughter, to create individual characterizations, but Verdi’s music for the rôles was handsomely sung by tenor Scott Scully and bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha. In both the first and second acts, bass-baritone Craig Colclough bawled Monterone’s dire accusations and curse stirringly, ‘E tu, serpente, tu che d’un padre ridi al dolore, sii maledetto’ catapulted at Rigoletto vehemently, but the costume and direction caused the vengeful father to seem more ridiculous than threatening.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) bass ANTE JERKUNICA as Sparafucile, soprano ERIN MORLEY as Gilda, and mezzo-soprano YULIA MATOCHKINA as Maddalena in The Metropolitan Opera's 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's RIGOLETTO [Photograph by Jonathan Tichler, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Una tempesta dell’anima: (from left to right) bass Ante Jerkunica as Sparafucile, soprano Erin Morley as Gilda, and mezzo-soprano Yulia Matochkina as Maddalena in The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto
[Photograph by Jonathan Tichler, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

The quality of mezzo-soprano Edyta Kulczak’s vocalism heightened the frustration engendered by the enigmatic treatment to which Gilda’s nurse Giovanna is subjected in Sher’s staging. Often assigned to singers of a certain age, whose voices are no longer steady, the rôle was here sung by a voice that was attractive of sound and attractively used. A sympathetic presence in facilitating Gilda’s rendezvous with the Duca, whom the innocent girl knew only as the impoverished studdent Gualtier Maldè, Giovanna’s flight at the end of Act One was all the more bewildering. Directorial meddling notwithstanding, Kulczak sang appealingly.

The seductress Maddalena was thankfully spared misguided intervention, the production permitting her to tunefully discharge her vocation in the traditional manner. In mezzo-soprano Yulia Matochkina’s evocative, garnet-toned performance, Maddalena was a very willing recipient of the Duca’s inebriated advances in Act Three, clearly conquered by his charm even before he wooed her in the famous quartet. Nevertheless, she voiced ‘Ah! ah! rido ben di core’ derisively, knowing that the Duca’s words were a libidinous ruse. The voice assumed poignant gravitas in the trio, Matochkina singing Maddalena’s pleas for Sparafucile to save the Duca’s life fervently. The woman of ill repute who cares for her mark in spite of herself is a cliché, but Verdi and Piave entrusted Maddalena with the vital task of precipitating Rigoletto’s tragedy. Singing first with bemused insouciance and ultimately with true conviction, Matochkina’s Maddalena was worthy of the bleak duty.

The stygian timbre of bass Ante Jerkunica’s voice suffused Verdi’s music for the vicious assassin Sparafucile with a sinister glow that was intensified by a disquietingly predatory stage presence. The blackguard placing his nefarious services at Rigoletto’s disposal in their scene in Act One, Jerkunica declaimed ‘Nè il chiesi...a voi presente un uom di spada sta’ coldly, his resonant low F evincing sepulchral frigidity. This Sparafucile’s sadistic evil was manifested in his delight at the finalization of the plot to murder the Duca and the cleverness of his scheme to use Maddalena to lure the aristocrat to his demise. There was greater annoyance than fraternal affection in the brother’s acquiescence to his sister’s demands for mercy for the Duca. The sudden bathing of Sparafucile’s dank tavern in garish red light as the crime was enacted undermined Jerkunica’s efforts at refining his characterization, but the impact of the voice was unalterable.

IN REVIEW: tenor STEPHEN COSTELLO as il duca di Mantova in The Metropolitan Opera's 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's RIGOLETTO [Photograph by Jonathan Tichler, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Il duca contemplativo: tenor Stephen Costello as il duca di Mantova in The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto
[Photograph by Jonathan Tichler, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

Why are the ladies of Rigoletto so captivated by the caddish Duca di Mantova? He is of course handsome, powerful, and unquestionably skilled at flattery. The naīve young Gilds’s infatuation with the unknown man whom she has observed from afar is understandable, but what inspires Maddalena, a woman of dubious ethics, to beg her brother to defy the terms of his murderous arrangement with Rigoletto? Even if she is newly arrived at the Duca’s court, can Contessa Ceprano not know that his reputation is warranted? Returning to a rôle that has been prominent in his repertoire since the beginning of his career, tenor Stephen Costello depicted the Duca as a complex, conflicted man whose carnal excesses did not wholly disfigure innate nobility of spirit. Animated by effortless top A♭s, his singing of the ballata ‘Questa o quella per me pari sono’ was enticingly flippant, but there was seriousness amidst the nonchalance. Monterone’s venom poisoned the Duca’s mood, but his voice glistened brightly in ensemble, his top B𝄫 shining above the din. Later, as the Duca waited outside of Rigoletto’s house for an opportunity to see Gilda, the vividness of the tenor’s exclamation of ‘Sua figlia!’ demonstrated with clarity not found in some performances that he realized that Gilda is Rigoletto’s daughter. In the duet with Gilda, Costello voiced the andantino cantabile ‘È il sol dell’anima, la vita è amore’ sublimely, each turn an amorous sigh. Reluctantly parting, his Duca bade Gilda farewell with a rollicking ‘ddio, addio, speranza ed anima,’ concluded with an easy, euphoric top D♭.

In the Duca’s scene at the start of Act Two, the prevailing emotional immediacy of Costello’s vocalism enriched his depiction of the Duca, lending the character rare sensitivity and humanity. His articulation of ‘Ella mi fu rapita!’ imparted discomfiting wonder, begetting a contemplative atmosphere in which the aria ‘Parmi veder le lagrime’ was serenely sung, the youthful sound of the voice limning atypical breadth of feeling. In this performance, the cabaletta ‘Possente amor mi chiama,’ sensationally sung, was irreproachably earnest. Rather than belying the integrity of the Duca’s sentiments in the previous act, Costello’s singing in Act Three legitimized his portrayal of the character’s psychological convolution. Voiced with cavalier bravado, his account of the familiar canzone ‘La donna è mobile’ was a capricious extemporization, not a calculated credo. His urgent ‘Un dì, se ben rammentomi’ and dulcet ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’ in the quartet were indisputably intended to advance the Duca’s conquest of Maddalena, but Costello projected a palpable sense of emotional torpor. Interestingly, whereas its earlier incarnation is interpolated, the top B that resolves the off-stage reprise of ‘La donna è mobile’ is written, perhaps symbolizing the Duca’s victory over Rigoletto’s vigilante justice. Costello’s Duca was troubled but undeserving of a violent death. He may not have truly loved Gilda, but in this performance she did not seem tragically foolish for loving him.

IN REVIEW: soprano ERIN MORLEY as Gilda (left) and tenor STEPHEN COSTELLO as il duca di Mantova (right) in The Metropolitan Opera's 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's RIGOLETTO [Photograph by Jonathan Tichler, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Un amore senza paura: soprano Erin Morley as Gilda (left) and tenor Stephen Costello as il duca di Mantova (right) in The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto
[Photograph by Jonathan Tichler, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

Sung with impeccable control and limpid tonal beauty, soprano Erin Morley’s Gilds was rightly the emotional epicenter of this Rigoletto. The manner in which her splendidly-schooled technique projected the voice into the vast hall without forcing exemplified a style of singing that is now infrequently heard, the tonal production recalling the voice of another noteworthy MET Gilda, Bidu Sayão. Morley’s performance in the Act One duet with Rigoletto, in which Gilda shyly but bravely confessed her longing to explore the world around her, introduced her Gilda as an adventurous soul whose exploits had to that point been solely within the confines of her imagination. Singing ‘Lo dite a questa povera figlia’ persuasively, she displayed her Gilda’s talent for gently inveigling her father.

Incandescently voiced by Morley, ‘Ah de’ miei vergini sogni son queste le voci tenere sì care a me!’ in the duet with the Duca divulged a new dimension of Gilda’s psyche, the girl’s interest in the man she knew as Gualtier Maldè blossoming into love. That love coursed through her singing of ‘Addio, addio, speranza ed anima’ and her plaintive enunciation of her beloved’s assumed name. Without disrupting the opera’s dramatic progression by performing the aria as a distinct entity rather than an organic expression of Gilda’s swirling feelings, Morley sang ’Caro nome che il mio cor’ magnificently, the emotional pangs of every staccato and trill elatedly communicated to the listener. Her abduction and delivery to the Duca precipitated Gilda’s spiritual maturation, the woman who rushed into her father’s arms in Act Two already distinguished by the courage that would effect her final sacrifice. Shame haunted Morley’s voicing of ’Tutte le feste al tempio,’ but the vitriol of Rigoletto’s invection against the Duca occasioned an account of ‘O mio padre, qual gioia feroce,’ culminating in a fabulous E♭ in alt, in which Gilda embraced her metamorphosing sensuality.

That observing the Duca in pursuit of Maddalena in Act Three broke Gilda’s heart was audible in Morley’s singing, her argent timbre briefly tarnished by shadows of disillusionment, yet her vocalism in the quartet disclosed an inextinguishable flame of hope. Eschewing an interpolated top D♭, she preferred the quartet’s written—and considerably more musical—ending, which she sang as a movingly intimate reflection. The extroverted, indomitable Gilda arose in the trio with Maddalena and Sparafucile, braving the storm to offer her own flesh to the assassin’s blade in order to save the Duca with a heroic top D. Morley’s performance in the opera’s final scene, as Gilda died in Rigoletto’s arms, was imbued with pathos but no regret. Her ‘Ah, ch’io taccia!’ radiated grief, but visionary fulfillment permeated ‘Lassù in cielo, vicina alla madre.’ Too often, Gilda is depicted as an archetype, a paragon of betrayed innocence, but Morley’s Gilda was a woman, innocent and betrayed, who took control her life by relinquishing it in an act of love.

IN REVIEW: baritone QUINN KELSEY as Rigoletto (left) and soprano ERIN MORLEY as Gilda (right) in The Metropolitan Opera's 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's RIGOLETTO [Photograph by Jonathan Tichler, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Il padre e la figlia, riuniti: baritone Quinn Kelsey as Rigoletto (left) and soprano Erin Morley as Gilda (right) in The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto
[Photograph by Jonathan Tichler, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

In the past decade, Quinn Kelsey has perpetuated the legacies of fellow American baritones Lawrence Tibbett, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Cornell MacNeil, and Sherrill Milnes by making Rigoletto a signature rôle. In this Rigoletto, the Hawai’i-born baritone honed his much-lauded portrayal of the character by accentuating not the torment of his physical limitations but the joys and trials of the father’s relationship with his daughter. In Rigoletto’s first scene, the cruelty of his taunting of Monterone immediately turned against him, the old man’s curse prompting Kelsey to drone ‘Quel vecchio maledivami!’ fearfully. Sparafucile’s insinuating lines in their duet intruded upon Rigoletto’s private musings, to which Kelsey responded with a potent but pensive account of ‘Pari siamo.’ The voice’s bronze patina shimmered in the duet with Gilda, the baritone voicing ‘Figlia! A te d’appresso trova sol gioia il core oppresso’ cathartically, divulging the refuge that his daughter’s company was for this Rigoletto. ‘Deh, non parlare al misero’ and ‘Ah! veglia, o donna. questo fiore’ were delivered with beauty and benevolence, but Rigoletto’s discovery in the act’s final scene of his unwitting complicity in Gilda’s abduction impelled Kelsey to vocalism of clangorous despair.

This was Kelsey’s ninth MET performance of Rigoletto in 2022, and the inevitable vocal toll of a busy career was occasionally audible in his singing. Surmising that Gilda was handed over to the Duca, this Rigoletto revealed to the courtiers in Act Two that the target of their sport is his daughter with crippling agony. Finding no pity, he voiced the famed aria ‘Cortigiani, vil razza dannata’ robustly, the expressivity of his singing partly compensating for insufficient legato. Pushing the voice was more injurious in the duet with Gilda, but Kelsey caressed the line in ‘Solo per me l’infamia a te chiedeva, o dio’ and an especially affecting ‘Piangi, fanciulla, e scorrere.’ Reminded anew of Monterone’s curse and denunciation of the lecherous Duca, ‘Sì, vendetta, tremenda vendetta’ was incendiary, Rigoletto’s resolve to punish his employer’s misdeeds proclaimed with a stunning top A♭.

There is no Verdi baritone rôle that does not make formidable demands on its intrepreters, but Act Three of Rigoletto is one of opera’s great tests for baritones’ vocal stamina and dramatic intuition. In this performance, Kelsey traversed Rigoletto’s transition from consuming acrimony to absolute devastation with emotional versatility, his command of the part’s tessitura awing. Exposing Gilda to the Duca’s infidelity in the quartet, Kelsey’s Rigoletto simultaneously formulated his regicidal plan and endeavored to alleviate his daughter’s pain. Celebrating his perceived triumph over the Duca, he declaimed ‘Della vendetta alfin giunge l’istante!’ jubilantly, but his ‘Qual voce!’ as he heard the Duca’s distant voice conveyed confused desperation. Kelsey’s singing of ‘Non morir...mio tesoro...pietate’ in the final duet with the dying Gilda was searing. The opera’s closing moments were surprisingly subdued, singer and character overwhelmed by sorrow and loss. Neither the production nor the performance was flawless, but opera thrives on imperfection. The failures of this Rigoletto contributed to its concentration on singing, and in doing so even the shortcomings succeeded.

13 June 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Igor Stravinsky — THE RAKE’S PROGRESS (B. Bliss, G. Schultz, C. Van Horn, R. Bryce-Davis, J. Creswell, E. Gigliotti, T. Stevenson, C. Job; The Metropolitan Opera, 7 June 2022)

IN REVIEW: tenor BEN BLISS as Tom Rakewell in The Metropolitan Opera's 2022 revival of Igor Stravinsky's THE RAKE'S PROGRESS [Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]IGOR FYODOROVICH STRAVINSKY (1882 – 1971): The Rake’s ProgressBen Bliss (Tom Rakewell), Golda Schultz (Anne Trulove), Christian Van Horn (Nick Shadow), Raehann Bryce-Davis (Baba the Turk), James Creswell (Trulove), Eve Gigliotti (Mother Goose), Tony Stevenson (Sellem), Christopher Job (Keeper of the Madhouse); Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; The Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Susanna Mälkki, conductor [Sir Jonathan Miller, production; J. Knighten Smit, revival stage director; Peter J. Davison, set designer; Judy Levin, costume designer; Jennifer Tipton, lighting designer; The Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, New York City, USA; Tuesday, 7 June 2022]

In an age in which under-explored niches of opera’s five-century history are regularly reassessed and rejuvenated, why is a composer whose music is so often played in the world’s concert halls a maddeningly infrequent guest in opera houses? Fifty-one years after his death, Igor Stravinsky’s still-piquant symphonic and ballet scores continue to be programmed by many orchestras, but his music for the lyric stage, though widely admired and much lauded for its stylistic variety and innovation, is familiar to audiences deluged by Verdi and Puccini by reputation rather than by experience. The operas Le rossignol, Œdipus rex, and The Rake’s Progress are among Stravinsky’s most accessible works, yet, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, by which company La bohème has been performed more than 1,300 times since 1900, Le rossignol and Œdipus rex have been heard fewer than three dozen times—and not since 2004.

The Rake’s Progress has fared no better since reaching the MET stage in 1953, only two years after the opera’s world première at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice, having amassed only twenty-six performances at the MET prior to the 2021 – 2022 Season’s run of four performances. That the piece has been featured in six MET seasons demonstrates that it is considered worthy of the company, but the paucity of shows in each of those seasons suggests that the opera is not trusted to appeal to ticket purchasers. Typically, such lack of faith in a work’s commercial viability can be attributed to a story that does not resonate with audiences, a poorly-written libretto, or an unimaginative score; or to a debilitating combination of these factors.

Based upon a series of much-studied Eighteenth-Century images by artist William Hogarth, whose bitingly satirical work scandalized and delighted Georgian England, Rake’s cautionary tale of the perils of foppish libertinism is perhaps more pertinent in 2022 than in Hogarth’s time or the period of the opera’s composition and first performances. Moreover, W. H. Auden’s and Chester Kallman’s libretto is of tremendously high literary and theatrical quality. The relative prevalence of its recurrence in the MET repertory discredits the notion that the score is undistinguished. Why, then, must a prospective listener nealy resort to emulating the work’s protagonist, Tom Rakewell, by making a Faustian bargain in order to witness a performance of The Rake’s Progress?

IN REVIEW: the cast of The Metropolitan Opera's 2022 revival of Sir Jonathan Miller's staging of Igor Stravinsky's THE RAKE'S PROGRESS [Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]The Truloves’ course ne’er did run smooth: the cast of The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022 revival of Sir Jonathan Miller’s staging of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress
[Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

Premièred in the MET’s 1997 – 1998 Season, Sir Jonathan Miller’s staging of Rake’s Progress, refreshed in this revival by stage director J. Knighten Smit, substantiates the opera’s artistic value and proposes largely sensible solutions to its problems. Like their libretti for Hans Werner Henze’s Bassarids and Elegy for Young Lovers, Auden’s and Kallman’s text for Rake’s Progress is characterized by levels of linguistic sophistication and psychological depth that can doom an opera to tedium, a fate mostly thwarted by Stravinsky but not altogether avoided in Miller’s staging. Peter J. Davison’s and Judy Levin’s lush, earth-toned set and costume designs, resourcefully illuminated by Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, relocated the opera’s setting from Hanoverian London to a temporal environment reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age. The production’s decadence heightened the persuasiveness of the hedonism that lures Tom to his ruin, but the vital contrast with the austerity of the Truloves’ simpler existence was marginalized by the visual lavishness. Nevertheless, overcoming too-lengthy pauses during scene changes, the staging did not inhibit the singers’ abilities to create nuanced characterizations and universal emotions, and Smit’s efforts perceptibly strove to shift the production’s focus from the physical to the metaphysical aspects of the drama.

Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki made her MET début in 2016, leading the company premiére of her countrywoman Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de loin. The faculty for mastering complex rhythmic transitions and ensembles in which lapses in coordination between stage and pit can be catastrophic that guided her handling of Saariaho’s score also contributed notably to her pacing of The Rake’s Progress despite moments in which her speaking of Stravinsky’s musical language was strangely accented. The composer’s tempo markings are meticulously detailed in the autograph, but Mälkki was liberal in her observance of them. The music’s stylistic ambiguities, assimilating discordant modernity with melodious neoclassicism, were navigated adroitly, however, the conducting often grippingly majestic, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra employed each instrument’s unique sonorities to spotlight the intricacies of Stravinsky’s part writing. Embracing Mälkki’s emphasis on clarity of line, the orchestra’s musicians executed their demanding parts splendidly, their playing bristling with energy and excitement. Recalling the toccata in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the Prelude to Act One provided a suitably effervescent curtain raiser, and the Prelude to the second scene of Act Three established a disquieting mood.

Woodwinds were exceptionally impactful in both lyrical passages and in turbulent moments, but the brasses often seemed to be playing notes rather than music. Principal trumpeter David Krauss’s account of the hauntingly beautiful writing for his instrument in Act Two, redolent of the lovely obbligato in Ernesto’s scene in Act Two of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, was disappointingly phlegmatic. Harpsichordist Jory Vinikour accompanied the opera’s recitatives not as a vague sound emanating from the pit but as a participant in the characters’ conversations. The slightly harsh timbre of the 1964 William Dowd instrument, maintained by Dongsok Shin, was very effective in the graveyard scene, in which Vinikour’s playing was musically and dramatically dazzling. Throughout the evening, the depths of Mälkki’s connections with Stravinsky’s score and with the MET’s musical forces were apparent. These connections fostered an abiding sense of espousal of the piece’s distinctive harmonic language, poised between Mozart—Don Giovanni often peeks out of the pages of Act Two—and Reimann. This faith in the opera, manifested in every aspect of Mälkki’s conducting, yielded a performance that was as enlightening as it was entertaining.

Integral to the success of a number of recent productions, not least Sir David McVicar’s staging of Verdi’s Don Carlos, Donald Palumbo’s training of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus continues to effect refinement of the choristers’ singing, which in Rake’s Progress was sensational. Portraying the opera’s prostitutes, cads, and Bedlamites was surely a welcome change from the chorus’s typical assignments in the MET repertory. ‘With air commanding and weapons handy’ in Act One was powerfully sung, and the singers’ accounts of ‘Soon dawn will glitter,’ ‘How sad a song,’ and ‘The sun is bright’ were keenly differentiated but of equal musical integrity. Mälkki’s able handling of the ensemble in the second scene of Act Two allowed the choral singing to serve as the vocal foundation that Stravinsky undoubtedly intended it to be. After an eerie incantation of ‘Ruin, disaster, shame,’ the Bedlam dialogue, minuet, and mourning chorus in Act Three were performed with riveting immediacy, the chorus claiming a critical rôle in the opera’s dramatic arc.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) tenor BEN BLISS as Tom Rakewell, bass-baritone CHRISTIAN VAN HORN as Nick Shadow, and mezzo-soprano EVE GIGLIOTTI as Mother Goose in The Metropolitan Opera's 2022 revival of Igor Stravinsky's THE RAKE'S PROGRESS [Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Luck be a lady tonight: (from left to right) tenor Ben Bliss as Tom Rakewell, bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Nick Shadow, and mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti as Mother Goose in The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022 revival of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress
[Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

As the keeper of the madhouse and the aptly-named auctioneer Sellem, both of whom are heard only in Act Three, bass-baritone Christopher Job and tenor Tony Stevenson galvanized the scenes in which they appeared, their vocal acting animating these dynamic characters. Job voiced ‘There he is,’ identifying the deranged Tom, with understated compassion, as though this keeper was determined to preserve an outward show of aloofness. Stevenson delivered Sellem’s much-interrupted aria in the bidding scene, ‘Who hears me, knows me a man with value,’ obsequiously, limning the opportunistic man’s smarmy self-satisfaction.

Mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti was an uncommonly glamorous Mother Goose, the rôle depicted in this production more as a virile seductress than as a debauched woman of a certain age. The voice seething with sensuality, there was slashing irony in Gigliotti’s arch query of ‘What is pleasure then?’ When she murmured ‘Away! Tonight I exercise my elder right,’ the full extent of the lady’s intentions was unmistakable. Like Bizet’s Carmen and Berg’s Lulu, Stravinsky’s Mother Goose benefits from portrayals that eschew cheap harlotry. Neither maternal nor flighty, Gigliotti’s attractively-sung Mother Goose was a woman unashamed of her adventurous sexual appetite.

Bass James Creswell’s Trulove reminded the audience that operatic fathers are not required to sound tired and wobbly. From his first note in Act One, Creswell’s voice was rousing and inviolably firm. In the trio with Anne and Tom, he sang ‘Oh, may a father’s prudent fears unfounded prove’ with paternal concern and doubt. The latter sentiment grew more prevalent when Tom unceremoniously refused the offer of a job procured for him by Trulove. First in the quartet and then in the terzettino with Anne and Tom, in which his account of ‘Fortune so swift and so easy’ possessed unusual gravitas, the bass declaimed Trulove’s words with textual and emotional clarity. Though his part in Act Three is small, he voiced ‘God is merciful and just’ in the duettino with Anne wifh affecting gentleness. His slow, quiet departure from the asylum as Tom lay insensate on the floor lent the scene devastating finality. Trulove’s lines in the epilogue were sung suavely. It is sometimes difficult to comprehend why Anne would hesitate to abandon her curmudgeonly father in order to follow Tom to London: Creswell’s stern but loving, wonderfully-sung Trulove made the impulse atypically credible.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano RAEHANN BRYCE-DAVIS as Baba the Turk in The Metropolitan Opera's 2022 revival of Igor Stravinsky's THE RAKE'S PROGRESS [Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Bearded beauty: mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis as Baba the Turk in The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022 revival of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress
[Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

Making her MET début in this production, mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis brought the iconic Baba the Turk to life with sultry tones and flamboyant comedic instincts. The bearded lady who becomes Tom’s wife is little more than a caricature in too many performances, but Bryce-Davis concentrated on the vulnerability that hides beyond the laughter. Her articulation of the recitative ‘My love, am I to remain in here forever?’ in Act Two introduced her Baba as a warm-hearted woman, but that warmth boiled into indignant ire in the trio with Anne and Tom, the mezzo-soprano exasperatedly lobbing ‘Who is it, pray, he prefers to me’ at the young lovers. Still, there was finesse in her articulation of ‘I have not run away, dear heart.’ Bryce-Davis sang ‘As I was saying, both brothers wore moustaches,’ Baba’s song ‘Come, sweet, come,’ and the aria ‘Scorned! Abused! Neglected! Baited!’ potently, her solid top A offsetting tones at the bottom of the range that were not ideally supported.

Though she is a character who is not often taken seriously by directors or audiences, Baba receives brutal treatment from Tom. Being auctioned as one of her husband’s material possessions in Act Three, when she hilariously resumed the rant begun before being silenced by Tom in the previous act, Bryce-Davis’s Baba sang ‘Sold! Annoyed!’ in a manner that was funny and fragile, the abandoned wife’s frustration disclosing seldom-admitted sincerity that permeated her heartfelt intoning of ‘You love him, seek to set him right’ in the duet with Anne. Bryce-Davis voiced ‘Let Baba warn the ladies’ in the epilogue ambivalently, offering both a personal admonition and an amusingly didactic lesson. Neither the English text nor the part’s tessitura was entirely comfortable for Bryce-Davis’s opulent voice, but her Baba was a marvelous portrayal.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone CHRISTIAN VAN HORN as Nick Shadow in The Metropolitan Opera's 2022 revival of Igor Stravinsky's THE RAKE'S PROGRESS [Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Out of the depths: bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Nick Shadow in The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022 revival of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress
[Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

Acclaimed during the MET’s 2018 – 2019 Season for his portrayal of the eponymous antagonist in Boito’s Mefistofele, bass-baritone Christian Van Horn expanded his New York gallery of diabolical portraits with a sadistically charismatic interpretation of Stravinsky’s Nick Shadow. The malevolent character’s villainy was shrouded in Act One in irrepressible charm, Van Horn voicing ‘Fair lady, gracious gentlemen’ and Shadow’s insinuating words in the quartet with unstinting charisma and tonal luster. In the act’s second scene, there was mesmerizing softness in his singing of ‘Sweet dreams, my master.’ As Shadow’s hold on Tom tightened in Act Two, Van Horn’s vocalism grew darker, his accounts of ‘Come, master, observe the host of mankind’ and the aria ‘In youth the panting slave pursues the fair evasive dame’ in the brothel scene brilliant but foreboding. The duets with Tom received some of Van Horn’s most incisive singing of the evening, ‘Come, master, prepare your fate to dare’ enunciated with pointed enticement and ‘A word to all my friends’ given an edge of sarcasm. The bass-baritone’s innate theatricality shone during the Pantomime, this Shadow always seizing the spotlight.

Van Horn sang the ballad ‘If boys had wings and girls had stings’ in Act Three with feigned conviviality, cajoling Tom before Shadow’s evil identity was revealed in the graveyard scene, in which a momentary breech of ensemble was quickly rectified. Demanding Tom’s soul as payment for his services, Van Horn’s Shadow declared ‘A year and a day have passed away’ with petrifying directness. In the final battle with Tom, Van Horn growled ‘Let wish be thought’ with predatory ambivalence, Shadow maintaining a show of mock decency whilst already celebrating his victory over his hapless victim. The quarry slipping from his grasp, Shadow cried ‘I burn! I freeze!’ and condemned Tom to madness with demonic force, but the singer proclaimed that ‘Day in, day out, poor Shadow must do as he is bidden’ in the epilogue with ebullient humor. Shadow’s music ascends to a plethora of top Es, sung by Van Horn with minimal forcing and fatigue. The part’s range wholly in the voice, he had no need to resort to shouting and snarling. Rather, he sang Shadow’s music without exaggeration and rightly trusted Stravinsly’s music to unmask the wily fiend.

IN REVIEW: soprano GOLDA SCHULTZ as Anne Trulove (left) and tenor BEN BLISS as Tom Rakewell (right) in The Metropolitan Opera's 2022 revival of Igor Stravinsky's THE RAKE'S PROGRESS [Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]If boys had wings and girls had stings: soprano Golda Schultz as Anne Trulove (left) and tenor Ben Bliss as Tom Rakewell (right) in The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022 revival of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress
[Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

The rôle of the pure-hearted Anne Trulove, courted but abandoned by Tom, was originated at La Fenice by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and first sung at the MET by Hilde Güden, a pair of singers who could hardly have been more different, vocally and temperamentally. Broadcast recordings do not permit listeners to meaningfully assess how Schwarzkopf’s and Güden’s singular voices projected in the acoustics of La Fenice and the old MET on Broadway, but, though it is an instrument of modest dimensions, soprano Golda Schultz’s voice glistened ravishingly in the house at Lincoln Center. The first moments of Anne’s duet with Tom in Act One marked the naïve but ardent young lady as the opera’s unwavering moral compass, the soprano suffusing ‘The woods are green’ and her lines in the quartet with girlish optimism. Singing ‘Farewell, for now my heart is with you’ in the duettino and ‘Heart, you are happy’ in the terzettino unaffectedly, Schultz touchingly conveyed Anne’s rectitude and the profundity of her love for Tom.

Audiences familiar with Rake’s Progress eagerly await the final scene of Act One, and Schultz’s performance justified the anticipation. Her distraught reading of the recitative ‘No word from Tom’ was followed by a dulcetly-phrased account of the aria ‘Quietly, night, oh! find him and caress,’ the soprano’s top B imparting the character’s sincerity. Exhilaratingly sung and ended with a fantastic, long-held top C, the cabaletta ‘I go to him’ unmistakably expressed Anne’s resolve to find Tom at any cost to herself. She portrayed Anne’s journey from hopefulness to despair in Act Two with supreme conviction, voicing the recitative ‘Although the heart for love dares everything’ and the arioso ‘O heart, be stronger’ with emotional simplicity. At last finding Tom amidst the corrupting bounties of London, this Anne’s question of ‘What can this mean?’ was gnawingly poignant, and Schultz communicated the doubt, disappointment, and sadness that undermine the girl’s confidence, singing ‘And, Tom, such splendour’ in the duet with her swain and ‘Could it then have been known’ in the trio with the newly-married Tom and Baba with agitation but without artifice.

Arriving at the auction in Act Three, Schultz inquired ‘Do you know where Tom Rakewell is?’ plaintively and voiced ‘He loves me still’ in the duet with Baba luminously. Her offstage ‘A love that is sworn before Thee’ strikingly penetrated the gloom of Tom’s descent into madness, and, at last finding Tom in the asylum, this Anne’s ‘What should I forgive?’ in the duet and the lullaby ‘Gently, little boat, across the ocean float’ were sweetly comforting. Anne resignedly taking her leave of the dying Tom, Schultz voiced ‘Every wearied body must late or soon return to dust’ in the brief duettino with Trulove expressively. After so much strife, the smile with which the soprano delivered ‘Not every rake is rescued at the last by love and beauty’ in the epilogue irradiated the auditorium with joy. The upper octave of the soprano’s voice was projected with greater impact than its lower reaches, but each tone was placed with care. Every aspect of Anne’s character was credible in Schultz’s performance, in which the impressionable young girl evolved into a mettlesome, self-sufficient woman.

Stravinsky_RAKE_MET_2022_06_Bliss-VanHorn_Ken-HowardBe careful what you wish for: tenor Ben Bliss as Tom Rakewell (left) and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Nick Shadow (right) in The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022 revival of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress>br>[Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

Historically, the most successful interpreters of Rake’s titular degenerate-in-the-making, Tom Rakewell, have been tenors with extensive experience in Mozart repertoire. Heard in previous MET seasons as Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Ferrando in Così fan tutte, and Tamino in Die ZauberflöteBen Bliss proved himself in this Rake to be a peer of the best Toms in the opera’s seven-decade history. Tom’s affection for Anne was apparent in the tenor’s singing of ‘Now is the season’ in the duet in the opera’s opening scene, but the boredom that precipitates the restless young man’s downfall was also discernible. Bliss performed the recitative ‘Here I stand’ and Tom’s aria ‘Since it is not by merit’ exuberantly, indefatigably negotiating the vocal writing’s assault on the passaggio. Duplicitously informed by Shadow of his inheritance of an unknown uncle’s estate, this Tom delighted in his good fortune, Bliss buoyantly dispatching ‘I wished but once’ in the quartet and ‘Wherever, when apart, I may be’ in the duettino with Anne. Earnestness did not entirely subjugate the wanderlust that lurked in his singing of the arioso ‘Dear Father Trulove’ and ‘Laughter and light and all charms that endear’ in the terzettino with the Truloves.

It was a much-altered Tom who entered Mother Goose’s ribaldrous establishment in the second scene of Act One. Still, boyish awkwardness lent Bliss’s voicings of ‘Love, love! That precious word is like a fiery coal’ and the cavatina ‘Love, too frequently betrayed’ beguiling expressivity. Fascinating, too, was the interpretive acuity with which he sang the arias ‘Vary the song, oh London, change!’ and ‘Always the quarry that I stalk fades’ in Act Two. Convinced by Shadow to take Baba as his wife, Bliss’s Tom exclaimed ‘My tale shall be told both by young and by old’ proudly, but Anne’s discovery of the union unnerved him, evinced by his despondent exclamations of ‘Anne! Here!’ and ‘It is done’ in the exchanges with Anne and Baba. Attaining elusive sleep by silencing Baba, this Tom was bewitched by his manipulated dream of a machine that converts stones into bread, singing the arioso ‘Oh Nick, I’ve had the strangest dream’ and ‘Thanks to this excellent device’ in the duet with Shadow with fervent wonder.

Tom’s path from bankruptcy to insanity and death in Act Three led Bliss through a vocal gauntlet, from which he emerged with assurance. He joined Van Horn in a memorable traversal of the ballad ‘If boys had wings and girls had stings,’ but Tom’s interactions with Shadow in the following scene impelled the tenor to vocalism of escalating distress. Trepidation chilled the singer’s timbre in ‘How dark and dreadful is the place’ and ‘My heart is wild with fear’ in the duets with Shadow, but an aura of triumph returned with Tom’s identifications of the correct cards. Bliss’s Tom succumbed to madness—Shadow’s final revenge—with a hypnotic account of ‘With roses crowned, I sit on ground.’

Tom’s madness girded Bliss’s timbre with a steely sheen in the opera’s final scene, the incandescence of his voicing of the arioso ‘Prepare yourselves, heroic shades’ fading upon Anne’s entrance into the madhouse. His ‘I have waited for thee so long’ and ‘In a foolish dream, in gloomy labyrinth’ in the duet with Anne were wrenchingly wistful. Contrasting an anguished ‘Where art thou, Venus?’ with achingly beautiful sotto voce singing, Bliss’s restrained, serene depiction of Tom’s death was incredibly moving. In a very different way, so, too, was his sounding of ‘Beware, young men who fancy you are Virgil or Julius Caesar’ in the epilogue, his character’s embodiment of the opera’s moral counsel realized with imaginative, unfailingly engaging singing. Bliss’s portrayal of Tom might have saved an ill-rendered Rake’s Progress: in this stellar performance, it validated the genius and undiminished viability of one of the Twentieth Century’s best operas.

04 June 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi — AIDA (M. Johnson, P. S. Drackley, H. Kim, B. Major, J. Bisch, S. Zaikuan, J. Roche, E. Brown; Opera Carolina, 9 April 2022)

IN REVIEW: the cast of Opera Carolina's April 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney Photography, © by Opera Carolina]GIUSEPPE VEDI (1813 – 1901): AidaMichelle Johnson (Aida), Peter Scott Drackley (Radamès), Hyona Kim (Amneris), Brian Major (Amonasro), Jordan Bisch (Ramfis), Song Zaikuan (Il re d’Egitto), Jersey Roche (Gran sacerdotessa), Elliott Brown (Un messaggero); Opera Carolina Chorus, Charlotte Symphony Orchestra; James Meena, conductor [Linda Brovsky, director; Michael Baumgarten, lighting Designer; Roberto Oswald, set designer; Anibal Lápiz, costume designer; Martha Ruskai, wig and makeup designer; Gabriela Sevillano, choreographer; Opera Carolina, Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Saturday, 9 April 2022]

An integral part of the unceasing work of safeguarding and enriching the vitality of opera in the Twenty-First Century is the process of assessing the comparative virtues of scores, analyzing their amassed contexts, and debating which pieces merit expenditure of limited resources. Many factors are employed in justifying the popularity of some scores and the neglect of others, one of which is an opera’s appeal to audiences now accustomed to visual-centric cinematic storytelling. Are some operas too intrinsically defined by the times and places of their creation to captivate today’s audiences?

Whether they were conceived for grand public events or in response to milestones in their creators’ lives, are not all works of art inherently pièces d’occasion? Commissioned to inaugurate Cairo’s opulent Khedivial Opera House, constructed in celebration of the completion of the Suez Canal, Giuseppe Verdi’s and Antonio Ghislanzoni’s Aida was the intended product of a grand occasion with few peers in opera’s history. Falling victim to political and logistical complications of war, Aida did not reach the new theater’s stage until 1871, two years after the Khedivial Opera House’s formal christening, for which Rigoletto was substituted for the custom-written score. Its origins notwithstanding, Aida’s drama, centered upon cultural conflicts and collisions of public personas and private sentiments, is as captivating in 2022 as it was in 1871. As Opera Carolina’s exhilarating production tunefully and touchingly demonstrated, the wars by which the world is divided and devastated have grown more calamitous, but Aida’s poignancy remains undamaged.

Dominated by a gargantuan effigy redolent of Nineteenth-Dynasty images of Ramesses II, Roberto Oswald’s set designs transformed the Belk Theater stage into a credible representation of the Egypt that Aida-loving audiences expect to see. Though unfailingly evocative, Aníbal Lápiz’s costumes were inconsistent in paralleling the production’s scenic aesthetic, seeming more Greco-Roman than Egyptian in some scenes. [Opera Carolina’s male choristers and supernumeraries earned particular praise for their bravery in donning attire that left far less to the imagination than some of them might have preferred.]

Looking exceptionally natural, Martha Ruskai’s wigs and makeup were models of operatic stagecraft at its finest, and her work was ideally complemented by Michael Baumgarten’s lighting. Director Linda Brovsky capitalized on these elements to stage an Aida that suited the space in which it was presented. The pageantry of the monumental final scene of Act Two was realized more effectively than in many larger-scaled productions, the procession of conquering warriors and spoils of war cleverly managed. Brovsky offered the Charlotte audience an appealingly traditional Aida that delivered all of the piece’s venerated grandiosity whilst avoiding the pomposity and stereotypes that afflict too many productions of the opera.

Under the baton of Opera Carolina’s Artistic Director James Meena, the Charlotte Symphony musicians played Verdi’s difficult score capably and often gracefully. The high string figrations in the opera’s Prelude were aptly ethereal, and the string playing was consistently musical. Brasses and woodwinds were similarly reliable of balance and intonation, the former enlivening the triumphal scene with sounds of stirring brilliance. The Danza sacra delle sacerdotesse in Act One and the Danza degli schiavi mori and the orgiastic Ballabile in Act Two, expertly choreographed by Gabriella Sevillano, were excellently paced by Meena, whose gift for choosing tempi that serve both composer and performers was evident throughout this Aida. Bolstered by the conductor’s rhythmic clarity, the diligent training of Opera Carolina’s chorus yielded singing of tremendous resonance. Insightfully husbanding the company’s musical resources, Meena brought an Aida worthy of Italy’s great opera houses to the Queen City.

Although Aida is not an ensemble piece in the manner of Verdi’s Falstaff, the quality of a performance of Aida is markedly reduced by poor singing in any of the opera’s principal or secondary rôles. Thankfully, enjoyment of Opera Carolina’s invigorating Aida was lessened by no inadequacies among the cast. Epitomizing the uniformity of the production’s vocal distinction, tenor Elliott Brown sang the Messaggero’s dire pronouncements in Act One rousingly, declaiming ‘Il sacro suolo dell’Egitto è invaso’ with a palpable sense of alarm. Similarly, the Gran Sacerdotessa’s ‘Immenso Fthà, del mondo spirito animator’ in the Gran scena della consacrazione that ends Act One was voiced diaphonously by soprano Jersey Roche, the words floating into the auditorium with fitting reverence.

IN REVIEW: the Triumphal Scene in Opera Carolina's April 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney Photography, © by Opera Carolina]Ritorna il salvatore della patria: the Triumphal Scene in Opera Carolina’s April 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida
[Photograph by Mitchell Kearney Photography, © by Opera Carolina]

The mighty Egypt depicted in Opera Carolina’s Aida could only be ruled by a resolute sovereign, and bass Song Zaikuan occupied Il re d’Egitto’s throne with unforced vocal and dramatic authority. The pharoah’s regal demeanor was audible in the singer’s handsome-toned delivery of ‘Alta cagion vi aduna’ in Act One, and he introduced the familiar melody of ‘Su! del Nilo al sacro lido’ with bravado. Glimmers of pragmatic magnanimity shone in Song’s characterization in Act Two, his voicing of ‘Salvator della patria, io ti saluto’ suffused with nationalistic and paternal pride. Sagaciously honoring Radamès’s plea for mercy for the vanquished Ethiopians without wholly disregarding Ramfis’s brutal counsel, Song’s Re sonorously tempered the Egyptians’ unrelenting bloodlust.

As the warmongering Egyptian high priest Ramfis, bass Jordan Bisch was a towering figure whose vocal profile did not always equal his intimidating physicality, especially in the lower reaches of the part’s range. After a marginally unsteady account of ‘Sì: corre voce che l’Etiope ardisca’ in the opera’s opening scene, Bisch’s singing strengthened as the performance progressed, and his dramatic instincts spurred him to enunciate Ramfis’s lines in both the final scene of Act One and the triumphal scene in Act Two with vehemence. The first and final scenes of Act Three were very congenial for the bass, his voice projected with greater ease. The matter-of-fact malace of Bisch’s vocalism in the scena del giudizio in Act Four was chilling, intimating that, to this Ramfis, handing down a death sentence was no more consequential than reciting a prayer. In this portrayal, being the instrument of retribution was a cherished responsibility rather than an inescapable duty of Ramfis’s position.

Even amongst Verdi’s famously demanding rôles for baritone, parts that span virtually the entire Nineteenth-Century musical spectrum, Aida’s father Amonasro is a fearsome character whose vocal and dramatic challenges are confoundingly disproportionate with the duration of his time on stage. It can be argued that Amonasro is Verdi’s most Wagnerian baritone rôle—an argument supported by the shouting heard from some interpreters of the part. In Opera Carolina’s Aida, baritone Brian Major portrayed Amonasro not as an Italian-speaking Holländer on holiday by the Nile but, harkening back to Giuseppe Taddei’s assumption of the part, as an obvious descendant of the bel canto rôles that inspired Verdi’s writing for the baritone voice. The disguised king emerging from the ranks of the Ethiopian prisoners of war in the second act’s triumphal scene, Major sang ‘Suo padre... Anch’io pugnai’ assertively but nobly, the top Es and Fs both forceful and emotive.

Amonasro’s tense meeting with Aida and Amonasro by the Nile in Act Three is one of Italian opera’s most riveting scenes, made all the more engrossing in this performance by the baritone’s electrifying singing of ‘Rivedrai le foreste inbalsamate.’ Torn by his conflicting love for his daughter and quest for vengeance against the Egyptians, Major’s Amonasro startled by infusing the deposed king’s raging with traces of tenderness. There is little subtlety in Amonasro’s exulting in the success of his strategem in the subsequent trio with Aida and Radamès, but the proud man’s aristocratic constitution remained apparent in Major’s refined singing. Vocal control of a now-rare order was the cornerstone of Major’s performance, his fidelity to Verdi’s notes and dynamic markings restoring to Amonasro the musical propriety that he all too often lacks.

IN REVIEW: the Judgment Scene in Opera Carolina's April 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney Photography, © by Opera Carolina]Falsa giustizia: the Judgment Scene in Opera Carolina’s April 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida
[Photograph by Mitchell Kearney Photography. © by Opera Carolina]

The high caliber of singing that has become a hallmark of Opera Carolina productions notwithstandin​g, an Amneris of the stature attained by mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim would have been noteworthy at the Arena di Verona or Teatro alla Scala. Kim’s portrayal of Amneris at once recalled extolled depictions by Ebe Stignani, Giulietta Simionato, and Fiorenza Cossotto and approached the rôle with her own unique sensibilities. This Amneris owned the stage from her first entrance in Act One, intoning ‘Quale insolita fiamma nel tuo sguardo’ in the trio with Radamès and Aida sinisterly. Kim wielded the word ‘sorella’ like a concealed dagger, luring Aida into her confidence and then plunging it into her rival’s heart. Prodding her people to war, this Amneris seemed keen to lead the Egyptian troops into battle herself.

The opening scene of Act Two allows an Amneris to exercise her femininity, and Kim was as convincing as the maidenly princess as she was as the severe tigress in other scenes. Feigned affection coursed through her demure singing in the duetto with Aida, but the daughter of pharaoh’s hidden agenda surged from the mezzo-soprano’s explosive ‘Trema, o vil schiava!’ Frequently shrieked, the top C♭s in the triumphal scene were here genuinely sung, as were the baleful accusations in the final scene of Act Three. Kim’s skills as singer and actress triumphed in Act Four, her account of ‘L’aborrita rivale a me sfuggia’ cogently imparting the wounded woman’s wrath. In the duet with Radamès, she voiced ‘Già i sacerdoti adunansi’ stunningly, dominating the pair of top B♭s. So momentous was Kim’s performance in the scena del giudizio, the top As utterly secure, that the guilt-stricken lover’s humanity overshadowed her treachery. The prayers as Aida and Radamès expired in the tomb were whispered, Amneris facing the demise of her contentment. Musically and histrionically, Kim was an Amneris to the manner born, an of-the-blood princess rather than a pretender.

In his first performance of one of the most daunting spinto rôles in the repertory, tenor Peter Scott Drackley sang Verdi’s music for the Egyptian warrior Radamès with enviable assurance, mastering a tessitura that some of his fellow interpreters of the part are grateful to merely survive. The part’s difficulty is compounded by the character’s sole aria being positionsd in the opera’s first scene, moments after the singer’s initial appearance on stage. If this test unnerved Drackley, trepidation was not discernible in his singing of ‘Se quel guerrier io fossi!’ His timbre and vocal amplitude reminiscent more of Carlo Bergonzi than of Mario del Monaco and Franco Corelli, he simultaneously sang with brawn and lyricism. Untroubled by its three top B♭s (and the numerous recurrences of the tone throughout the opera), he phrased the romanza ‘Celeste Aida, forma divina’ expansively, regarding it as a private reverie rather than a stentorian declaration. Already suspecting Amneris’s duplicity, this Radamès exhibited caution in the terzetto until Aida’s arrival, when his hushed ‘Dessa’ signaled a change in his deportment.

Radamès’s joy upon being named commander of the Egyptian army was unmistakable, but, here and in the cantabile in Act One’s final scene, Drackley also limned the soldier’s cognizance of the risks of his love for Aida. Returning victorious in the triumphal scene, this Radamès’s thoughts again turned to Aida, his request for pharaoh’s pardon for the Ethiopian prisoners born of his empathy for Aids’s suffering. Radamès joining his beloved on the bank of the Nile, unaware of being observed by her father, Drackley voiced ‘Pur ti riveggo, mia dolce Aida’ ardently, passion at last subjugating patriotic loyalty. His horror upon discovering Amonasro’s plot and Aida’s part in it was devastating, the top As with which Radamès lamented his unintended treason thrillingly sung. Drackley was a worthy adversary for Kim in the Act Four duet with Amneris, his defiance boldly but honorably articulated. After his serene ‘La fatal pietra sovra me si chiuse,’ Drackley movingly conveyed Radamès’s anguish at finding Aida concealed in the tomb in which he must perish. In the final duet, the tenor’s voice rose beautifully to the pianissimi above the stave. Crucially, Drackley sang Radamès’s music with his own voice, never forcing the tone or distorting his timbre’s innate luster by attempting to emulate another singer’s portrayal.

Many gifted sopranos have learned through experience that success in the title rôle of Aida depends upon more than possessing a voice with the requisite range and weight for the music. The most memorable interpreters of Aida inhabit the rôle with depth that transcends musical aptitude, and, allied with vocal accomplishment, it was her immersion in the part’s psychological complexity that lent soprano Michelle Johnson’s portrayal of Aida affecting profundity. The hesitation with which her Aida entered in Act One was indicative of her demoralizing discomfort at the Egyptian court, yet her conviction grew with each successive passage of the terzetto with Amneris and Radamès, her voicing of ‘Ohimè! di guerra fremere’ ascending to a resilient top B. Her top Cs in ensembles were fearless, but her traversal of ‘Ritorna vincitor’ touchingly communicated Aida’s consternation, and her ‘L’insana parola, o Numi, sperdete!’ coruscated with emotional intensity. Her singing of ‘Felice esser poss’io’ providing a glimpse of Aida’s true lineage, Johnson’s sparring with Kim in the Act Two duetto with Amneris accentuated the scene’s indebtedness to the ‘dialogo delle due regine’ in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. Johnson ensured that Aida’s dismay was omnipresent amidst the triumphal scene’s cacophony.

Alone for the first time in the opera in Act Three, Johnson’s Aida retreated into her own thoughts, voicing ‘Qui Radamès verrà!’ pensively. Its eagerly-awaited exposed top C engenders undue emphasis on the romanza ‘O patria mia! mai più ti rivedrò,’ but Johnson’s performance justified its prominence, the oft-mangled top C intuitively integrated into the line rather than being over-sustained egotistically. Aida’s contemplation interrupted by Amonasro’s unexpected arrival, Johnson uttered ‘Ciel! mio padre!’ with visceral panic, and her vocalism in the harrowing duet and the trio that ensued upon Radamès’s appearance was intriguingly expressive, the listener drawn still further into Aida’s private discord. The rapturous beauty with which she phrased ‘Presago il core della tua condanna’ and the sublime ‘O terra, addio’ revealed the abiding deliverance from sorrow that death alongside Radamès brought Aida. Johnson’s singing was not without effort, but every brief flash of stress heightened the credibility of her appealingly personal interpretation of the part. She was an Aida who felt each of the character’s emotions acutely, and this was an Aida in which the eloquence of Verdi’s music prevailed over the woes of the world.