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Rigoletto Revived

Washington National Opera
03/29/2008 -  and March 31, April 1, 3, 6, 8, 9, 12, 13
Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto
Joseph Calleja (Duke of Mantua), Yingxi Zhang (Borsa), Claudia Huckle (Countess Ceprano), Carlos Alvarez (Rigoletto), Grigory Soloviov (Count Ceprano), James Schaffran (Marullo), Robert Cantrell (Monterone), Andrea Silvestrelli (Sparafucile), Lybov Petrova (Gilda), Magdalena Wór (Giovanna), Elizabeth Andrews Waters (Page), Malgorzata Walewska (Maddalena)
Washington National Opera Chorus and Dancers
Washington National Opera Orchestra, Giovanni Reggioli (Conductor)
Steven Gathman (Chorus Master), Robert Dahlstrom (Set Designer), Zack Brown (Costume Designer), Mark McCullough (Lighting Designer), Elsen Associates (Wigs and makeup), Catherine Malfitano (Stage Director)

Washington National Opera continues its Spring 2008 Season with a musically compelling and dramatically potent revival of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto. Based on Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse, it is a grotesque tale of a hunchback and his daughter. It deals with sexual perversity, maledictions, revenge, and murder. A story that is very much along the same lines of Hugo’s more famous Hunchback of Notre Dame. Rigoletto is filled with some of the most famous and memorable music in all of Italian opera. It is also a work that has been much maligned by modern stage directors.

The great American soprano Catherine Malfitano, in her Washington directorial debut, let the drama unfold the way Verdi and his great librettist Piave intended. She let the opera speak for itself, and in so doing the work regained its original strength. To my eyes and ears, it was refreshing and revealing. All of the dramatic situations were well delineated with focus on the right characters at the right moment. Even without Francis Rizzo’s excellent super-titles, the audience would have had no trouble in following the action of the plot. Too many modern directors get bogged down with “concepts” that try to bring out hidden meanings and subtexts. Usually, this approach only confuses the audience and obscures the original plot. Miss Malfitano’s unencumbered approach produced a shocking drama that riveted the audience. The standing ovation she received at her curtain call was completely deserved. Miss Malfitano is of course renowned as a singing actress and I am sure her many years on the stage and the legion of stage directors with whom she has worked have given her a great sense of what works in the theater and what doesn’t.

None of this will matter, however, in an opera like Rigoletto unless the singing is of the highest order and WNO has assembled a magnificent cast. Joseph Calleja was extraordinary as the Duke of Mantua. His voice is supple and refined and he possesses an unusual ease in the top register. His tenor showed no hint of strain and his ability to diminuendo a high B natural recalled the heyday of DiStefano and Bjoerling. He was lascivious in his portrayal of the Duke and lilting in his delivery of the arias.
It was indeed a happy evening for the tenor!

As the tormented and twisted hunchback jester, Carlos Alvarez sang with great pathos and vocal opulence. It would be difficult to imagine a better-sung Rigoletto in any opera house in the world. He was simply superb in all of his big scenes such as the “Pari siamo” and the “Cortiggiani, vil razza” and movingly tender in his duets with Gilda. Mr. Alvarez is also a fine actor but he is uncommonly handsome. He was quite literally the best-looking Rigoletto I have ever seen. Perhaps “wigs and makeup” can adjust his face to something more hideous before the end of the run.

As Gilda, the deceived and defiled daughter of Rigoletto, soprano Lyubov Petrova displayed an old fashioned soprano leggiera. She admirably negotiated the technical terrors of her big aria “Caro nome” employing an excellent trill and cleanly articulated scale passages. Her voice was clear and silvery in timbre, reaching effortlessly to a high E. She was the epitome of the sweet and innocent young girl so willing to die for love.

As the assassin Sparafucile, bass Andrea Silvestrelli exhibited one of the largest voices I have ever heard on any stage. Mr. Silvestrelli is a very big man…very tall and menacing in appearance; this, coupled with his enormous vocal presence, made quite a sinister vision on the stage.

As his sister Maddalena, mezzo Malgorzata Walewska was also impressive. Her generous and plumy voice was a delight to hear in the great quartet of Act IV.

Also impressive is the Washington National Opera’s male chorus. A very solid musical ensemble they sang and acted with great bravura. All of the comprimario roles were also well cast. Tenor Yingxi Zhang and James Schaffran in particular turning in very solid performances as Borsa and Marullo.

Maestro Giovanni Reggioli gave a well-paced and cohesive reading of this great warhorse. He is obviously a singer’s conductor and he accompanied the principals with great sensitivity, allowing them plenty of room for breath and expression. He exerted excellent control of the orchestra, producing a highly nuanced reading that conveyed Verdi’s multitudinous and heart-rending emotions.

You are not likely to see as satisfying a production of Rigoletto as this for many years to come. If at all possible, you will not want to miss this one. Performances continue through April 13.

Micaele Sparacino



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