Metropolitan Opera 2018-19 Review: Rigoletto

Rosa Feola Makes Triumphant Met Debut Alongside Matthew Polenzani & George Gagnidze

By Nicole Kuchta

On the evening of April 26, 2019, guests excitedly filed into the Metropolitan Opera’s grand auditorium, eager to experience Verdi’s masterpiece “Rigoletto.” Returning to the stage for its second run of performances this season with a new principal cast, Michael Mayer’s production sets the tragic opera in Las Vegas in the 1960s.

With the audience seated and Maestro Nicola Luisotti standing ready at the podium, the curtain opened to reveal a strikingly flashy set, featuring bright neon signs littering walls of a Vegas casino. Two elevators sat on either side of the stage. The opera began with the Duke, owner of the establishment and known philanderer, chasing after the wife of a member of his entourage, with the encouragement of his sidekick – the hunchbacked comedian Rigoletto.

Relating To Rigoletto

George Gagnidze starred in the title role of the opera, which he first performed at the Met back in 2009. The Georgian baritone’s robust voice and skillful acting made for a compelling Rigoletto, rough and commanding yet pitiable and surprisingly relatable. He earnestly conveyed the inner bitterness of the wretched comedian as well as the vulnerability of a man fearful of losing his treasure in life – his darling daughter Gilda.

As he recalls and dwells upon the curse (“la maledizione”) placed upon him by Monterone, reimagined as an Arab tycoon in this production, Gagnidze reveals Rigoletto’s fearfulness and superstitious nature, highlighting the character’s awareness of the consequences of wrongdoing. In this way, the character became more than a seedy clown and overbearing father – he became relatable, as a man who knows he is fated to face his karma but tries desperately to protect himself, in this case by preserving the purity of Gilda, the light in his life.

Jumping ahead, the final scene was a high point of Gagnidze’s performance: Rigoletto, gloating over the success of his plot, hears the Duke’s voice gaily singing “La donna è mobile,” and comes to realize that the body in the trunk is not his target – it is his precious daughter. Despite the jester’s dejected spirit, his taunts, his plot to kill the Duke, Gagnidze managed to make him, in this moment, a man with whom the audience could empathize. Even after vowing to avenge Monterone, sending his daughter away in disguise, and plotting a murder, he was still ultimately powerless to control his fate – a fear shared amongst nearly all of us deep down. The baritone’s final defeated cry of the curse was haunting – in fact, it sent a chill down my spine.

Rosa Feola Shines As Gilda

Making her highly anticipated Met debut as Rigoletto’s prepossessing young daughter Gilda, Italian soprano Rosa Feola revealed herself to be enchanting in the role. Feola’s mellifluous sound is of rich color and features a lovely quick spin that paints her as a youthful, energetic, if not somewhat naïve soul. A soul so pure and innocent that it will attract tragedy with magnetic force.

Her “Caro Nome” was the perfect balance of passionate and delicate. Jay Goodwin, the Met’s Editorial Director, mentions in the Program Note that because “Rigoletto” is driven constantly forward in an “arioso-like mixture” of recitative, aria, and ensemble numbers, it is important that Gilda’s signature aria (among other solo numbers) be “handled by the performers with tasteful understatement to avoid seeming out of place and stalling the crucial momentum.” As she sang of her beloved Gualtier Maldè, the Duke in disguise, Feola tenderly delivered skillful coloratura and jubilant trills, evoking the feeling of Gilda’s rapidly fluttering heart. Her staccato notes were punctuated with youthful anticipation, as if the young beauty could hardly catch her breath in her state of joy and excitement.

In revealing her disobedience to her father in the second Act, Feola initially presents her Gilda as distraught and embarrassed. However, as she relives the events leading up to that night – the discovery of the handsome young man at church, their romantic eyes-only conversations – she makes it clear that her distress has more to do with fear of hurting her father than her abduction and affair. In those moments, the infatuation of “Caro nome” could be still heard in her voice, gentle yet carrying an intense emotion, suggesting that she would remain beguiled by the Duke.

Feola performed Gilda’s final moments, as she chose to sacrifice herself for her lover, with a moving (almost frustratingly so) woefulness. Maintaining a warm, “pure” sound to the end, even through her sorrows and the thunder storm, the soprano highlighted Gilda’s youthful innocence in a way that not only made her death more heart wrenching but made Rigoletto’s loss all the more painful to experience.

The Duke – Antagonist?

Tenor Matthew Polenzani made for an animated Duke, introducing the casino owner to the audience with a jaunty, carefree rendition of “Questa o quella.” Throughout the opera, Polenzani sang with a vibrancy and clarity that captivated not only his female conquests but his Met audience.

Suavely dressed and confidently belting into a mic, our first impression of the Duke is that of the smooth womanizer we all love to hate. However, by the time the opera concluded, I found that I did not harbor strong negative feelings toward the character – I did not feel bothered by his escape from justice. And no, any lingering distaste was not simply dispelled by Polenzani’s charming execution of the character’s melodious tunes! Interestingly enough, it was the one-dimensional face the tenor gave to his character, completely absorbed in himself, that made the Duke tolerable, as it illuminated his symbolic, as opposed to outright antagonistic, role in the opera.

Polenzani performed the Act one duet with Gilda (his sound blended beautifully with Feola’s) and his Act two aria “Parmi veder” with such conviction that one would get the sense that the Duke was not only enamored with his latest catch, but actually believed in those feelings. Shortly after his affair with Gilda, when he jovially pumps out his well-known “La donna e mobile” and catches the attention of Maddalena (Ramona Zaharia), we were pulled from his magnetism.

This interpretation really highlights some psychopathic traits of the Duke: he sings the poetic words of what he believes is “love” (really, to him, a fleeting spark of pleasure), but does not genuinely comprehend their meaning. Due to the character’s charming but ultimately flat persona, I was left with the understanding that the he functioned more as a symbol of, or device for, misfortune than a person in whom one could become invested.

Image Of The Jester

Though Gagnidze’s performance was exciting, I noticed that his costume did little to provide a visual expression of his character. Appearing on stage in a simple sweater and trousers ensemble, the jester hardly looked his own part – the only evidence of his being a comedian were his taunts toward Ceprano and Monterone. Surely with a Vegas-themed production, his costume could have been a bit more flamboyant and jester-like.

Additionally, I felt that his deformity was underplayed, enough so that had it not been alluded to in the libretto, it may have gone unnoticed by those unfamiliar with the opera. I feel it’s important to note this, as Rigoletto’s negative self-image, which has developed as a result of his abnormal physical appearance among other misfortunes, is a driving force in the plot: his adversities lead to misery, his misery seeks company, he taunts and ridicules an aggrieved father, and ultimately he brings a curse upon himself. The father’s anguish in the opera’s final moments is most poignant when the audience understands that Gilda is a metaphor for the purity left in his life, and although we hear his self-depreciating words in the father-daughter Act one duet, it is more convincing when we can visually see a pitiable hunchbacked jester – especially in a time where some guests may not pick up on nuances in the music.

A Stormy Final Scene

While I enjoyed the casino primarily for its fun visual, I really felt that the translation of the inn to a sketchy club on the outskirts of town worked particularly well. Having departed earlier on the ominous rumble of his own name following an introductory chat with his now client, sinister hit man Sparafucile (Dimitry Ivashchenko) returned with his louche sister Maddalena in the doomy setting perfectly fit for a murder-for-hire plot. Zaharia brought some humanness to her dodgy character through expression of love for the Duke, desperately pleading with her brother, intent and intimidating, to spare his life. As the siblings hatched a plan to kill the next person who came through the door, Gilda, still consumed by the fire of young love, decides to sacrifice herself. The weather in the heavens was reflective of the drama on Earth, depicted on a huge screen featuring zigzagging neon lights that intensified along with the music and plot, up through the opera’s climax – Gilda’s murder.

All in all, the performance was thoroughly entertaining and the singers proved themselves well-suited to their parts. The Vegas themed production, with its casino, sketchy night club, and dubious ensemble, was an interesting and engaging concept for the opera, eliciting an omnipresent sense of foreboding that complemented the dark nature of the plot. Feola’s Met debut was indeed a triumph, enhanced by the artful performances of Gagnidze and Polenzani.


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