Modern, Minimalist, Misogynistic Rigoletto Packs a Punch

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Verdi, Rigoletto: Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonie Zurich, Antonello Allemandi (conductor), Zürich Opernhaus, Zurich, 14.2.2016. (RP)


Verdi, Rigoletto


Duke of Mantua: Yosep Kang
Rigoletto: Quinn Kelsey
Gilda: Rosa Feola
Sparafucile: Pavel Daniluk
Maddalena: Judith Schmid
Monterone: Valeriy Murga
Marullo: Cheyne Davidson
Borsa: Dmitry Ivanchey
Giovanna: Julia Riley
Count Ceprano: Yuriy Tsiple
Countess Ceprano: Ivana Rusko
Court Page: Lin Shi
Usher: Adrian Timpau


Director: Tatjana Gürbaca
Sets and Lighting: Klaus Grünberg
Costumes: Silke Willrett
Chorus: Ernst Raffelsberger

Male-dominated, misogynistic domains, where women are interchangeable sexual playthings, are not confined to the past. Director Tatjana Gürbaca’s decision to update the time and place of Verdi’s Rigoletto from a palace in 16th-century Mantua to a toxic, modern-day office environment, intensifies the drama and makes it discomfortingly relevant to contemporary audiences. However, Gürbaca and stage designer Klaus Grünberg do more than update: the opera is stripped bare. The stage is a plain black box with just a long table surrounded by chairs for scenery. It sometime serves as a desk, and at other times is draped with a white cloth. The focus is totally on the people on stage. There is nowhere for them to hide (except under the table, which they do from time to time), and they are exposed, both as singers and actors. Vocally, this worked mainly to the singers’ advantage, as they were able to just stand and deliver. Dramatically, it had its limitations.

Rosa Feola triumphed as Gilda. Her physical and emotional evolution from a sheltered teenage girl flirting with a handsome young man that she sees in church, to a young woman who chooses to sacrifice her life for the man she loves, no matter how disillusioned she is with him, and fully knowing that it will crush her father, was real. Feola’s lyric soprano has a clear, bell-like quality, shown to lovely effect in her exquisite Act I aria, “Caro Nome.” Her coloratura, phrasing and sense of line were likewise. This production attempted to solve the age-old dilemma of how sopranos keep singing full voice, after they have been stabbed and are at death’s door. The solution here was to have a double slip into the arms of the stricken Rigoletto, while Gilda stands up and sings, ultimately falling backwards into the arms of the chorus. But in a stark, realistic production such as this one, it just did not work.

When Michael Fabiano cancelled a few weeks ago, Zurich had to scramble to find tenors to cover the run. It struck gold with Yosep Kang, who sang just one performance. (The other two were Francesco Demuro with three, and Vittorio Grigolo with two.) With what one would assume was a minimum of rehearsal but maximum pressure, Kang fit the demands of this production to a T. The Duke does not have much emotional ground to cover: actually, almost zero. Granted he wonders if his feelings for Gilda might be love, but that does not divert him from being his rakish, boorish true self, with few if any moral boundaries. Kang donned his various guises  ̶  jaded business executive, tender-hearted suitor, unscrupulous womanizer  ̶  with equal ease. He has the voice, looks and animal magnetism to bring the Duke to life, and relied on muscle rather than finesse to push his voice into its upper register. (Let’s hope that was the pressure of the moment, and not a habit with him.) But it is a voice, and if his “La donna è mobile” sounded a little forced the first time around, it was free and easy when reprised.

One clearly sees what the fuss is about with baritone Quinn Kelsey, who sang the title role when this production premiered in 2013. (The Metropolitan Opera awarded him the Tenth Annual Beverly Sills Artist Award last year.) He has a truly beautiful, rich, powerful baritone voice, and the potential to be a fine Verdi singer. He just is not there yet. He can summon the volume and the emotion to deliver Rigoletto’s outbursts, as he did in ”Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,” where he pleads with his daughter’s abductors for her return. He was also devastatingly effective in the final scene, when he realizes that he has been duped, but he is not up to all of the demands of the role. There are moments where he comes off incongruously as a giant teddy bear, and at times his voice is just too pretty. The grit is missing. In the two crucial duets with Gilda, the energy and dramatic tension just evaporated, but the conductor, Antonello Allemandi, bears as much, if not more, responsibility for that, especially in “Figlia!” “Mio padre!” in Act I. Feola attempted to breathe some life into it and propel the music forward, but Allemandi just did not go there. Kelsey was content to spin beautiful legato lines.

It did not help that Kelsey was up against the Sparafucile of Pavel Daniluk, who had ice water flowing in his veins, and the Monterone of Valeriy Murga, malevolence personified as he seeks revenge for the rape of his wife: both men can dominate a stage. The surprise, however, was the Maddalena of Judith Schmid, who was also in the original run of this production. I associate Schmid with pert, charming mezzo soprano roles, in which she is a delight, but here she was a voracious sexual creature hungry for the Duke. That she, little more than a prostitute, can love the Duke, sheds light on Gilda’s inexplicable attraction to him. He is just a babe magnet. The famous quartet in Act III was perhaps the most erotic scene that I have ever experienced in the opera house. Schmid and Kang were fully clothed, but there was fire. Perhaps a different tenor every night just creates the sexual charge to make that happen.

Allemandi’s conducting was uneven, and thus the Philharmonie Zurich did not play with its accustomed finesse. The brief overture was gripping, and the tension immediately established, but as noted, that was not the case throughout. Balance was a concern at times, with rambunctious flute playing all but drowning out Feola in the recitative that precedes “Caro Nome.” The conductor was much like his Rigoletto, most effective in the dramatic outbursts, which did give the performance a visceral punch. It had the potential to be more.

Rick Perdian

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