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.