Thursday, March 20, 2014

Tradition, talent, and triumph: BLO's Rigoletto

Michael Mayes and Nadine Sierra take flight in Rigoletto.  Photos: Eric Antoniou.

Traditionalists take note: I can guarantee you will be pleased with Boston Lyric Opera's new Rigoletto (through this weekend only at the Schubert); indeed, you'll probably be over the moon. For the darkly sumptuous costumes and décor of Tomer Zvulun's production land us smack dab in the Italian Renaissance, right where we should be, and the staging hews to high (if familiar) standards. Which actually proves a brilliant move, because there's nothing to distract us from the singing, and here the production is solid gold, as there are two rising regional stars - baritone Michael Mayes and soprano Nadine Sierra - in the leads. Both these talents are destined for the most prestigious stages in opera - so if you aren't already over the moon with the set and costumes, this pair will quickly take you there.

Alas, there is one operatic tradition that perhaps director Zvulun doesn't tend to with subtlety - the ironic tradition, which despite the form's reputation for grand passion, actually stretches all the way back to Monteverdi, and hence to its very beginning. And the ironies of Verdi's masterpiece are among the coldest and most harrowing of the repertoire (indeed they have unnerved audiences since its premiere). The eponymous court jester Rigoletto has built his career on ridiculing the cuckolds left in the wake of the Duke of Mantua's amorous exploits.  So when his master turns a lecherous eye toward Rigoletto's own daughter, Gilda (whose innocence he has devoted himself to protecting) we know the cruelest kind of karma lies in wait for him.

 The Duke with a happy conquest.
Director Zvulun understands the tragic dimensions of this plot twist well enough, but I'm afraid he underlines with a heavy hand the Duke's caddishness (at right).  Subtler - and, in the end, more devastating - productions give us an appealing seducer rather than a serial abuser, however - strange as that may sound. Zvulun scores political points with this interpretation, but one of the sharpest ironies in the libretto lies in Gilda's loving response to her own ravishment; and the opera famously concludes with the lothario's happy, heedless aria "La donna è mobile" echoing over Rigoletto's destruction. A dashing, sun-dappled Apollo, who almost listens to the better angels of his own nature - so his minion's machinations are more clearly at play in his own doom - is key to pushing this opera to the level of true tragedy.

That said, in vocal terms tenor Bruce Sledge made an attractive Duke - although at least on opening night he was fighting a cold, and so didn't quite project the warm power you can hear in some of his recordings.  But I have to add that in acting terms, he was at least a step behind his co-stars. Baritone Michael Mayes has essayed Verdi's crook-backed comic before, and it showed in a performance that few tragic actors could have bettered. The pathos of Rigoletto's deformity, his own understandably tortured psyche, his desperate determination to keep one thing sacred in a fallen world - all these were unforgettable.  And Mayes' voice is commanding, with dark veins of color running under its burnished surface: in a word, remarkable.

The luminous Nadine Serra as Gilda.
But surprisingly, soprano Nadine Sierra (left) was even better.  We've heard this winner of the Met auditions before, as Titania in Britten's Midsummer, and she was certainly appealing there; but here she's moving at a newly virtuosic level of vocal control. Her glowing presence is just right for Gilda - she's a fresh rose blooming in the dank cellars of John Conklin's gloomy set - but her voice may be even more beautiful than the lady herself.  It's exquisitely pure, and almost amazingly supple; Sierra can cast gossamer lines at the top of her range with the kind of confidence that brings an audience to its knees - or its feet.

But wait, there's more; local wonder David Cushing again impressed as the wronged count who calls curses down on poor Rigoletto's head, while David Kravitz, another local luminary, acquitted himself well in a brief cameo as one of the Duke's cuckolds. Likewise the chorus gave Verdi's masculine anthems a muscular thrust, and even minor roles were etched with capable dispatch.

Meanwhile down in the pit, guest conductor Christopher Franklin seemed to know just how to draw the passionate lustre from Verdi's famous score. And Victoria Tyzkun's costumes, all dark velvet and gold, or rich silk and satin, were everything you'd want in a big Renaissance blow-out; indeed, sometimes the stage looked like a moving Titian or Tintoretto. Designer Conklin drew on other artists, though, for inspiration: Annabele Carracci's Venus and Anchises (from Rome's Farnese Palace, site of a certain Puccini tragedy) served as the basis of a fresco that grew more fractured as the plot progressed; meanwhile up above the sordid action, a model metropolis drawn from Piero della Francesca's famous Ideal City seemed to gleam with silent irony.  These subtle footnotes to Conklin's design were just more evidence of the thoughtful care that went into a production that amounts to a triumph.

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