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Strong Rigoletto at Austin Lyric

Long Center for the Performing Arts
01/31/2009 -  & February 4, 6, 8*
Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto
Todd Thomas (Rigoletto), Lyubov Petrova (Gilda), Chad Shelton (Duke of Mantua), Peter Volpe (Sparafucile), Kirsten Gunlogson (Maddalena), Timothy McDevitt (Marullo), Kyle Albertson (Monterone), Kristine Olson (Giovanna), Erika Wuertzner (page), Brian Joyce (Borsa), Gil Zilkha (Ceprano), Mela Dailey (Countess Ceprano), Chris Denholm (court official)
Austin Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Marc David Erck (chorus master), Richard Buckley (conductor)
Kay Walker Castaldo (Stage director), Allen Charles Klein (scenic designer), David Nancarrow (lighting designer), Gail Bakkom (costumer designer), Melanie Steele (hair/makeup), Bill Mester (sound designer)

T. Thomas (Rigoletto), L. Petrova (Gilda)
(© Mark Matson)

Austin Lyric Opera’s recent production of Verdi’s Rigoletto gave central Texans an opportunity to see both local and international stars in a colorful, crowd-pleasing production. While the cast proved quite strong overall, the men stole the show right from the first scene and proved to be the most reliable performers of the production.

Todd Thomas gave a fine performance in the title role. A lighter voiced dramatic baritone, Thomas projected clearly without blustering, and showed an easy, ringing top shared by few of his colleagues in the notoriously high Verdi tessitura. His “Cortigiani” was the highlight of the performance, as Thomas had the opportunity to showcase both the dramatic and lyrical facets of his voice along with his total control at all dynamics. Making his company debut, the baritone demonstrated a very well acted Rigoletto; Thomas’ interactions with Gilda in particular showed an introspective side of the doomed hunchback not only bent on vengeance but driven by a shame that appeared to rival the love he showed for his daughter.

Russian soprano Lyubov Petrova, also making her company debut, gave a good, if unpolished performance as Gilda. The size of Petrova’s voice paled in comparison to those of her colleagues, but she made up for it with easily dispatched coloratura and strong acting. Unfortunately, Petrova came off of her voice in the longer lines with too much frequency, and her Italian diction needs some serious attention. She has the looks and youthful vigor for Gilda, but needs a little more vocal work on the role.

Texan Chad Shelton brought a clear, focused voice to the Duke. The tenor displayed a nice bloom in his upper register and easily navigated the long Verdian lines called for in the score. Shelton gave a particularly strong, lyrical rendition of “Parmi veder le lagrime,” despite eschewing the high D in the cabaletta. This production marks the tenor’s role debut as the Duke, and while his acting could use some improvement, with time this could be a strong staple in his repertoire.

The murderous siblings were a mixed bag. Bass Peter Volpe as Sparafucile gave the most complete vocal portrayal of the entire cast: his strong voice filled the house with ease, legato, and clarity. Volpe’s strong acting skills complement his powerful voice, and his low F at the end of the Act I duet garnered one of the largest applauses of the night. Mezzo Kirsten Gunlogson provided a sultry embodiment of Maddalena, but her voice is too small for the 2,400 seat Michael & Susan Dell Hall.

Kay Walker Castaldo presented a traditional staging, with the exception of stage action during the overture that contributed very little to the drama. English lighting designer David Nancarrow deserves special recognition for his clever schemes, particularly for the Act III set.

Unfortunately, Austin Lyric’s principal conductor Richard Buckley made a poor showing for himself in this Rigoletto. Buckley led the first scene at a frantic pace, leaving both Shelton and Thomas to trip over their phrasing, resulting in both being forced to drop words outright just to keep up. Later, the conductor employed ritards at awkward moments, forcing his singers to split what should have been legato phrases into two breaths. Such inattentiveness to vocalists is inexcusable for a conductor of Buckley’s caliber.

Nevertheless, this Rigoletto serves as the latest in a string of successful productions at Austin Lyric Opera. With its new home at the world class Long Center for the Performing Arts coupled with its continuing artistic triumphs, the company is on the brink of becoming a force to be reckoned with on the Texas opera scene.

Paul Wooley



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