Over the past few years, the Berkshire Opera Festival has seen tremendous expansion at the hands of Artistic Director Brian Garman and General Director Jonathon Loy.
“The festival has grown in several different ways even though we continue to produce one MainStage show,” Loy told OperaWire in a recent interview. “The growth is both internal and in the community. I think we are finally being recognized in the Berkshires for the work that we do and that is being reflected in our ticket sales. It is clear people want to see our opera production.”
Now entering its third season, the festival will now take on Verdi’s “Rigoletto” in its annual opera showcase. The production kicks off this weekend on August 25, with additional performances on August 28 and 31 comprised of a cast that includes Romanian baritone Sebastian Cana in the title role. Maria Valdes stars as Gilda and Jonathan Tetelman, who had a great success at the Tanglewood Festival a few weeks back, will appear as the Duke of Mantua.
“[Catana is] one of the very small handful of guys who sing all the major Verdi baritone roles all over Europe and South America,” Garman told OperaWire. “I’ve known Sebastian for almost 20 years, and have wanted to do a show for him for a long time. And he was available this year, much to our benefit! His is real Verdian singing and with an enormous and beautiful voice.
Regarding Valdes, Garman noted that he heard her in New York in 2016 and was immediately struck with her singing. “She sang so beautifully and so musically and with such heartfelt emotion, I knew immediately that I wanted her for this role.”
Finally, he noted that Tetelman was a true discovery. “His singing is vibrant and thrilling, and he’s really the ‘complete package.’ These three artists, together with our outstanding supporting cast, should make for a thrilling show.”
Black & White
The opera itself is one of the major repertory staples and its plot is as timely as ever with the #metoo movement in full force. Loy noted that while “’Rigoletto’ is #metoo,” it was never a motivating factor in presenting the work. Instead, he noted that the focus was on putting together something “100 percent aesthetically beautiful on stage.”
“That may seem trite, but in fact, with that as a starting point, it led me down a path that has opened up so many possibilities,” Loy added before noting that the first choice that came from this decision was to strip everything down to a black and white aesthetic.
“The set is a three-sided box made of natural white muslin, with a white canvas groundcloth – a white box. The few pieces of furniture and few props are all high gloss black,” he added. “The first thing this does is give complete focus to the amazing principal singers and give us the ability to focus on the drama and music, strip everything away.”
Per Loy, women will be clad in white while all the chorus and principal men will feature in black. Only Rigoletto, who “is in 50 shades of gray,” will provide the exception to the rule. Loy also showcases a male principal dancer as an incarnation of the Duke and all men while a female principal dancer will embody Monterone’s daughter and women at large.
“I think by putting something aesthetically beautiful onstage this brings the audience into this world where some things are just black and white,” he emphasized.
A Different Interpretational Lens
Garman noted that interpreting a work like “Rigoletto” brings its fair share of challenges, simply because it is such a well-known work.
“I think we are all influenced in one way or another, for better or worse, overtly or subliminally, by previous performances we’ve heard,” he noted. “This is just inevitable, and certainly, there have been many great performances and recordings of ‘Rigoletto.’ But of course, with a piece as familiar as this one, the situation becomes rather complicated.”
He did explain that his approach was to often question some of the traditional aspects of interpretation.
“I think when we approach really well-known works like this, there are often a lot of layers of old paint that need to be stripped away. Musical ‘tradition’ simply for the sake of tradition is not of great interest to me, insofar as I find it diagnostic but not always particularly practical,” Garman explained. “We have to ask: who decided on these ‘traditions’? Why have we continued to follow them? Do they have anything to do with the composer’s intentions?”
He did note that he was far more interested in the musical conventions and performance practices of the time when the opera was first written and performed.
“For example, I like several of the ‘traditional’ added high notes in ‘Rigoletto,’ because we have every reason to think that Verdi knew singers would add such things,” he enthused. “But there are other traditions — tempi that over time have become exaggeratedly fast or slow, for example — that I don’t like, because they’re in direct conflict with what the composer wrote.
He also noted that he believes that works like “Rigoletto” should be approached through the lens of works that came before, instead of those that would come after.
“None of this is ever to make any kind of ‘statement,’ I must say,” Garman added. “It’s simply an effort to try and find the truth.”
Performing a work like “Rigoletto,” with so many famous melodies that endure and have even dominated pop culture for some time, is always a joy. Both noted that the work itself has several aspects that they find irresistible.
“The storm and the murder scene are genius,” Garman expressed. “And there’s something astonishing about the final scene with the delivery of the sack and Gilda’s death, and the second-act scene in the court through ‘Cortigiani.’ In both cases, every note and rest in the score is perfectly calibrated to ratchet up the tension until each scene’s inevitable climax.
“Dramatically for me, one of the most interesting things about this piece is that Rigoletto is the only character who has an arc, a journey,” Loy concluded. “Every other character is exactly the same from beginning to end. We watch Rigoletto as he unsuccessfully navigates work and fatherhood, and how every decision he makes ultimately leads to his daughter’s demise and how that will change him forever.”
Audiences will get to experience the journey this coming weekend.