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Vol. LXII, No. 7
 
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
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Music/Theater

Opera New Jersey Presents Striking Production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto”

Nancy Plum

In some ways, life in the 21st century is not that much different than that of the 19th. Instead of attending movies for entertainment, people went to the opera, and in mid-19th century Venice, people waited for Giuseppe Verdi’s newest production like the late 20th century waited for Lord of the Rings sequels. Verdi operas captured the spirit of a nationalistic Italian people, and Rigoletto, one of the earlier of Verdi’s most popular works, presented a fanciful, yet appealing world of Italian royalty.

Opera New Jersey (formerly New Jersey Opera Theatre) chose Rigoletto as its winter production, and taking a cue from the New Jersey Symphony, presented the work in several venues around the state, including last Friday night at McCarter Theatre. Friday night’s production (presented in Italian with English supertitles) was a semi-concert version, with a good-sized orchestra onstage, separated from the singers in front by a scrim. Conductor John Keenan, a veteran of the Metropolitan Opera, had the singers at his back, making it difficult to imagine the give-and-take between conductor and singer which is so much a part of opera. However, the singing cast was also populated with veteran Met singers who had their characters so under control that they knew instinctively when to stretch the music.

In the lead role of Rigoletto, baritone Richard Zeller was a pleasure to hear. All of the voices in this production were fresh and vibrant, and Mr. Zeller generated great sympathy from the audience for his portrayal of the rather pathetic jester under the probably wrong impression that he had been cursed. Mr. Zeller maintained an introspective soliloquy style in his role, and was especially well matched by soprano Eglise Gutiérrez singing the role of his daughter Gilda.

Ms. Gutiérrez floated her high notes particularly well, emphasizing the breathless effects of the role’s signature aria, “Caro Nome,” including a clean and dramatic cadenza. Ms. Gutiérrez’s reflective recitative in Act III, accompanied by solo oboe, was especially haunting. Gilda was totally taken by the Duke (sung by tenor John Osborn), and the duets between these two characters were vocally in tandem.

Bass Kevin Langan, whose career includes most major American opera stages, sang the role of the hired killer Sparafucile with sufficient sinisterness and solid vocal technique. The other evil bass in the cast, the prisoner Monterone, was equally as menacing, sung by bass Ben Wager, a resident artist at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts. Monterone’s curse on Rigoletto haunted the jester throughout the opera, and Mr. Zeller credibly presented the character’s extreme superstitiousness and sometimes unreasonable (to 21st century audiences) fear of Monterone’s apparent ability to wreak havoc on other people’s lives.

Mezzo-soprano Jeniece Golbourne was assigned some of the more unique staging of the evening by director Michael Scarola. Portraying Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena, so in love with the Duke that she convinced her brother to murder “whoever comes in the door next” rather than her beloved, Ms. Golbourne had some pretty racy moments singing on the floor with Mr. Osborn, holding the audience’s attention with both her rich lower register and her ability to musically concentrate with the Duke’s hands all over her.

With the orchestra so far back onstage, Mr. Keenan had his hands full melding singers and instrumentalists so that the evening did not sound like a performance of two separate ensembles. However, other than a very few instances holding the male chorus in tempo, the production was seamless in musical flow. The tempi were quick and the orchestra precise, with subtle but solid brass attacks punctuating the threatening delivery of Monterone and Sparafucile.

The production was billed as a “semi-concert version,” but director Scarola did a very effective job making the limited space in front of the orchestra seem like plenty of room for the singers. The performers maneuvered around sparse sets, and Mr. Scarola cleverly built the third act quartet scene around two sides of a closed door. Costume designer Patricia Hibbert created very complex and stylish costumes, including especially elegant dress for the royalty among the characters.

Verdi’s operas were the talk of Venice in the mid-19th century, and their tunes so widespread that Verdi allegedly did not give “La donne è mobile” to the original Duke until just before the premiere for fear that the tune would be all over town before the show’s opening. Friday night’s production of the opera brought such vocal talent to the McCarter stage that this production was also likely discussed widely throughout the weekend by the most appreciative audience.

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