Sebastian Catana’s Jester Anchors Berkshire Opera Festival’s Riveting Rigoletto

United StatesUnited States Berkshire Opera Festival – Verdi, Rigoletto: Soloists, Berkshire Opera Festival Chorus & Orchestra / Brian Garman (conductor), Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA, 25.8.2018. (RP)

Sebastian Catana (Rigoletto) and Maria Valdes (Gilda) in Berkshire Opera Festival’s Rigoletto © Ken Howard
Sebastian Catana (Rigoletto) & Maria Valdes (Gilda) in Rigoletto © Ken Howard

Rigoletto – Sebastian Catana
Gilda – Maria Valdes
Duke of Mantua – Jonathan Tetelman
Sparafucile – Joseph Barron
Maddalena – Maya Lahyani
Count Monterone – John Cheek
Matteo Borsa – Joshua Sanders
Marullo – Nicholas Martorano
Count Ceprano – Tyler Putnam
Giovanna – Mary Ellen Verdi
Countess Ceprano – Kalia Kellogg
Page – Erin Nafziger
Court Usher – Steve Hassmer
Dancers – Vincent Brewer, Ana Luiza Luizi

Stage Director – Jonathon Loy
Scenic Designer – Stephen Dobay
Costume Designer – Charles Caine
Hair and Make-up Designer – Beckie Kravetz
Choreographers – Ana Luiza Luizi, June Teixeira
Chorus Master – Geoffrey Larson

The Berkshire Mountains in Western Massachusetts have long been home to classical music, dance and theater. Since 2016 fully staged opera has also been in the mix thanks to the Berkshire Opera Festival. Founded by Brian Garman and Jonathon Loy in 2016, its mission is to present opera at the highest standards. Judging from this summer’s Rigoletto, they realize their lofty aspirations by assembling world-class talent and polishing one opera to perfection.

BOF presented Rigoletto in the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, a little jewel that was built in 1903. Thespian greats trod its boards in the early twentieth century before it became a movie house and then an art supply store. Declared a National Historical Treasure by First Lady Hillary Clinton in 1998 during a visit to Pittsfield, the theater reopened in 2006 restored to its former glory. Its orchestral pit and decent acoustics are icing on the cake.

The set was basic, just a three-sided white box with two doorways. The rooms of the Duke’s palace and the houses of Rigoletto and Sparafucile were delineated by a line of white light that ran across the stage, impermeable as the thickest wall as no one ever stepped across it. A few pieces of dark wood furniture appeared from time to time. Gilda peered through imaginary windows, and the Duke’s courtiers abducted her over a nonexistent wall, all of which were real because the performers willed them so.

Lighting effects were few and subtle. The door frames of the rooms in the Duke’s palace took on a gold hue, but otherwise they were white. Costumes – black for the men and cream for the women – were expertly crafted and of the sixteenth century in which Verdi set the action. There was little color except for the red wash during Act II. It could have signified many things – Gilda’s shame, her love for the Duke, Rigoletto’s rage, the blood that would soon be spilled – but that was for the audience to decide.

The role of Rigoletto features prominently in Sebastian Catana’s busy schedule. His voice is tight and focused, and his characterization of the hunchbacked court jester was shattering in its intensity. Rigoletto’s rage was volcanic in ‘Cortigiami vil razza dannata’, as he denounced the men who abducted his daughter, but his sympathy and love for her afterwards were heartbreaking. There was never any doubt that he believed Monterone’s curse would hit its mark.

Maria Valdes with her long blond curls was a vision of innocence as Gilda, robed in black after she had been ravished by the Duke. She has sung the role with the San Francisco Opera, but it took her a while to settle down vocally. ‘Caro nome’ was beautiful, with the coloratura expressive and clean, but her voice was not quite anchored. That changed in the second act when she was absolutely radiant, singing in lustrous tones of her love for the Duke.

‘Looks: Ten; Morals: Zero’, to twist the song from A Chorus Line, pretty much sums up the Duke of Jonathan Tetelman. The voice gets a ten too. Apart from a few high notes that didn’t quite pop in ‘La donna e mobile’, the Duke of Mantua is easy sailing for him. Like Valdes, he only got better as the show progressed, and his high-flying singing in the Quartet had all of the swagger and vocal pizzazz of which tenor scoundrels are made.

Just as the father-daughter relationship never seemed more real to me than in this performance, Maddalena’s affection for the Duke, who treated her as he did all women as little more than a piece of meat, rang true. Maya Lahyani has a dark, sultry mezzo-soprano voice with a truly distinctive timbre that roped me in hook, line and sinker.

Joseph Barron was all business as her brother, Sparafucile; one body was as good as the next as long as he got his money. There is a smoothness to his robust bass-baritone that matches his total ease on stage. It was pure luxury casting to have John Cheek in the role of Count Monterone. As he was led off to prison, he hurled his curse at Rigoletto with the stoicism and nobility of a Socrates.

Brian Garman was just as convincing in the pit. The overture was brisk and sparkling, perfectly setting up the drama that was to unfold. There were some rough patches in the first act, but those were passing. The male chorus was excellent, moving with effortless grace across the stage.

From what I overhead at intermission, this production was an aha moment for some in the audience, best summed up by one man saying that he didn’t miss elaborate sets at all because he could focus on the characters and the story. Loy has a gift for carefully delineating characters and their motives that is truly special. Never has the tragic tale of Rigoletto been more real to me.

Rick Perdian

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