The New Adventures of Old Christine
Metropolitan Opera House
09/29/2010 - & October 2*, 5, 8, 14, 2010, January 11, 15, 18, 22, 27, April 26, 30, May 3, 6, 12, 2011
Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto
Christine Schaefer (Gilda), Nino Surguladze (Maddalena), Francesco Meli (Duke), Lado Atanelli (Rigoletto), Andrea Silvestrelli (Sparafucile)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra,
Paolo Arrivabeni (conductor)
Otto Schen (production), Gregory Keller (director), Zack Brown (sets and costumes), Gil Wechsler (lighting designer)
Even her most ardent fans had to admit that Maria Callas sometimes undertook a role that simply was not right for her unique vocal instrument. A truly great actress with that voice, she could always deliver a stunning performance, but occasionally strained the suspension of disbelief to its breaking point. One such characterization was that of Gilda, for, try as she might, La Divina could never sound like an ingénue. Although her readings of Rigoletto with Di Stefano and Gobbi are a feast for the ear, they fall short in what the Germans call “the eye of the ear”. She is simply not Gilda.
I ruminated about this while traveling to Lincoln Center on Saturday evening to hear arguably the best living soprano play the same part. Christine Schaefer was excellent as Gretel here a couple of seasons ago, but it was a strain to hear her in such a cavernous house. Thankfully, she did not resort to shouting to solve the dilemma, but I wonder what the folks in the balcony thought of her. Certainly a lighter voice than that of Callas, this particular instrument still seemed a bit risky on this night in this role in this venue.
Otto Schenk has not been totally abandoned by the MET as yet, and so we experienced the production that we have seen many times before (this is always a good thing for critical comparative purposes). Premiering in the same week as the new Rheingold, this is clearly the “non-Levine” section of the repertoire (read less rehearsal time).
Overall, Ms. Schaefer delivered a miraculous performance, a shining example of vocal purity that supported this particular characterization. Every note was a perfect pair, every phrase delicately placed into a diaphanous construction. It is hard to remember a more breathtaking Caro nome. However, the volume level was always of concern, and when she sang with others, her voice tended to be subsumed.
Further, the duets involving Gilda suffered from a strange imbalance. Not only was there a loudness discrepancy, and sometimes the partner was less than perfect in his pitch control, but, more significantly, there was simply a sordid contrast between the rounded jewels of the heroine and the rough cuts of her companions. After a while this became a serious irritant.
One might be forgiven for thinking that the setting was not Mantua, but rather Georgia (no, not Gone With The Wind Georgia), as both the Rigoletto and the Maddalena hail from Tblisi. Two of four debut artists in this production (not counting the maestro), both the Maddalena of Nino Surguladze and the Rigoletto of Lado Ataneli, left much to be desired. The former was often inaudible and the latter produced a surprisingly mixed rendition. His rhythmic flow was fine, his pitch accuracy first rate, but he emanated absolutely no emotion. Imagine, a Rigoletto that neither feels nor elicits any feeling from his audience. When he discovers that it is Gilda in the sack, he might as well have been reciting the telephone directory.
One odd touch was the absence of any pronounced hump on the jester’s back. I kept hoping that as Monterone’s curse intensified the hump might grow, but it was not to be.
The other principal, tenor Francesco Meli, was strong-voiced and confident, but his sense of vocal and rhythmical proportion ran against the grain of the music. He was not a crowd favorite: there was actually no ovation whatsoever after his La donna e mobile. Andrea Silvestrelli was a lackluster Sparafucile.
Verdi would have been familiar with the expression “the fish stinks from the head” and so it did this night. Conductor Paolo Arrivabeni played little more than the role of a timekeeper, following the singers adequately I suppose, but totally squandering the opportunity of leading the best opera orchestra on the planet.