Boheme Opera NJ Presents Performance Of Verdi Classic at Patriots Theater
By Nancy Plum
It is difficult enough to present a professional opera production in the best of times, but over the past two years, it must have seemed almost impossible. Opera companies nationwide struggled to succeed in a medium considered a coronavirus “superspreader,” and regional companies in particular have been putting their artistic toes in the water very slowly these days. Boheme Opera NJ, which has been presenting opera in the area for the past 33 years, took a big leap back into the performance arena this past weekend with a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s classic Rigoletto at the Patriots Theater at Trenton’s War Memorial. Led by conductor Joseph Pucciatti, Boheme Opera NJ’s fully-staged and supertitled production brought together a talented cast of singers and instrumentalists, accompanied by innovative digital sets and well-paced music.
As popular as Rigoletto is today, the plot of Verdi’s 1851 opera was considered surprisingly shocking in its time. Based on a Victor Hugo play and with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, Rigoletto had a storyline perceived as making fun of royalty. Verdi moved the story’s location to Italy and reduced the protagonist in rank to duke, thus appeasing the Naples censors to which he was required to submit the libretto.
Celebrating more than 30 years of opera production, Boheme Opera NJ was riding a wave of artistic growth in 2020, when this production was originally scheduled, and the company bravely moved the performance site to Patriots Theater. A two-year hiatus on live opera performance upended the company’s upward momentum, yet this past weekend’s performances provided an opportunity for “spring reawakenings.” Friday night’s production (repeated Sunday afternoon) featured six singers making Boheme Opera debuts and nine singers performing their assigned roles for the first time.
Rigoletto fit well into a 19th-century formula in which the tenor is the romantic lead and the soprano his leading lady, with a villainous bass lurking in the background. A baritone hunchback in Rigoletto changed the formula slightly, with Verdi adding his trademark unforgettable melodies into the musical mix. Verdi operas also often have their own signature features, such as a show-stopping coloratura soprano aria and poignant father-daughter conflict. Boheme Opera’s production featured solid singing throughout, but much of the evening belonged to Robert Balonek singing the title role. As Rigoletto, Balonek was able to scurry through crowd scenes with elastic physicality as well as express parental tenderness toward his daughter Gilda. He was alternately sprightly, animated, and conniving, with a solid voice carrying well into the house. Balonek showed particularly sensitive dynamics in an Act I soliloquy, while both scheming with the professional assassin Sparafucile and offering protective advice to Gilda.
As Gilda, soprano Susanne Burgess was youthful and energetic, and sang especially well in the father-daughter duets with Balonek. She demonstrated a resonant top register, soaring well above the orchestration in a soliloquy of her own in Act III. Burgess sang the Act II crowd-pleaser “Caro nome” with ease, tossing off ornamented lines as well as a flawless cadenza reaching to high Bs.
Tenor Jeremy Brauner sang the role of the Duke of Mantua in a commanding manner, with particular vocal strength in the middle register. He sang the Act III aria “Parmi veder le lagrime” with lyricism and sensitivity and provided a spirited rendition of the Duke’s signature “La donna è mobile.” The fourth and most sinister member of the story, the assassin Sparafucile, was solidly performed by bass Jeremy Galyon, who has appeared numerous times with the Metropolitan Opera. Throughout the production, Galyon was both shady in costume and vocally convincing.
The cast was rounded out well by a number of lesser characters whose musical requirements were just as demanding as those of the larger roles. Bass Martin Hargrove presented his character of the nobleman Count Monterone with a voice that could “shake like thunder,” and tenor Emmanuel Acosta sang the role of the courtier Borsa with humor, animation, and a lyrical tenor voice.
Baritone Charles Schneider, who has a long history with Boheme Opera, well performed the role of the second courtier, Marullo, fitting comfortably into Verdi’s numerous and popular trademark ensemble numbers. Pucciatti kept Verdi’s lively music moving along well, with an orchestra of expert players. The brass sections added subtle suspense to the score, and wind solos, including oboist/English horn player Nicholas Gatto provided elegance in accompanying arias.
Boheme Opera’s Rigoletto production was enhanced significantly by the digital sets created by designer J. Matthew Root. Most poignant were the shadows surrounding Gilda as she sang “Caro nome.” The details within the sets were imaginative, including a flock of birds which periodically flew across the backdrop. A 14-voice men’s chorus was impressively strong, and the stage direction overall accommodated all performers well.
It was no doubt a challenge to pull all the elements of this opera together, especially in a new performance hall for the company. Boheme Opera NJ made a heroic effort over the past two years to keep its audience engaged through virtual concerts, podcasts and online lecture series, but as the company noted and as last weekend’s performances proved, there is no substitute for live opera productions.