Metropolitan Opera 2021-22 Review: Rigoletto
Michael Chioldi Triumphs in Bartlett Sher’s Distracting ProductionBy Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera)
On Dec. 31, the Metropolitan Opera opened a new production of “Rigoletto.” It was the first time since 2013 that the company was showcasing a new staging of Verdi’s masterpiece and it was a departure from the Las Vegas set. And all eyes were on Quinn Kelsey, who was singing his first Rigoletto at the Met after performing the role to acclaim all over the world.
While Kelsey successfully went on stage for the opening night, he was forced to cancel the second performance on Jan. 4. As a result, the Metropolitan Opera called in Michael Chioldi, who is currently covering the entire run.
The result was a performance that took some time to warm up to but ended with a well-deserved standing ovation.
Last Minute Jump In
Chioldi made his Met debut in 1996 and has not performed with the company since 1997. While he has covered over the years, this was the first time the baritone was singing a lead role on the company’s stage and you could hear some of the nerves in the first act.
During his first entrance, Chioldi sang with thundering crescendos and relished the patter-like music that Verdi wrote for Rigoletto. The confrontation with Monterone, showed Chioldi enjoying himself as he tripped Craig Colclough’s Monterone while using his grainy sound to poke fun at Monterone. But he couldn’t quite get a hold of the softer tones during his ensuing monologue “Parisiamo.” The voice started out with a booming timbre that slowly became wearier as Chioldi struggled to find a smooth legato texture. Instead, the voice sounded harsh and the linesa detached. That of course didn’t hurt the scene as it showcased a haunted Rigoletto and also brought out the elderly qualities of the character.
But his lack of a legato line did affect his first duet with Gilda. While he started with a forte tone on “Deh, non parlare al misero,” Chioldi seemed to struggle with connecting the line and there were moments where he could barely reach the higher register. There were also a lot of breathy phrases that seemed out of place with Verdi’s more Bel Canto line and at times it sounded like Chioldi was running out air. His voice also lacked the flexibility necessary for this part of the duet. That said in the second part, “Ah, veglia, o donna, questo fiore,” Chioldi’s rich sound finally seemed to take form and you could hear the tenderness of his baritone as he relished the portamenti and the legato phrases. It was a breakthrough moment for the baritone and you could finally hear Chioldi’s voice finding a foothold with the music. There was only one moment where you could hear him struggle during this section and that was when he was called on to climb a flight of stairs. But who could fault him? Verdi’s music is hard enough and climbing stairs takes a toll on anyone’s breath support.
If the baritone seemed to have an uneven first act, the second and third acts were commanding and heartbreaking. Rigoletto’s big scene “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” is the ultimate test for any baritone and Chioldi was up for the task. He entered the scene singing “La ra, la ra, la la…” with a mix of a lamenting and ironic tone that displayed Rigoletto’s desperate search for his daughter while also keeping his jester-like character. But when he started his “Cortigianni,” Chioldi’s voice was filled with anguish and he emphasized that with accentuated phrases on certain parts of the text. One could hear the lament as he emoted the text “Ma mia figlia è impagabil tesor. La rendete! o, se pur disarmata” and “Quella porta, assassini, m’aprite!” And then in the following, “Miei signori… perdono, pietate..” the baritone sang with an open sound that while sometimes pitchy was full of emotion. It seemed like Chioldi simply threw caution out the window and just went for everything he could muster in his voice to fill the house. In the end, it was simply exciting to see him pour his heart and soul into the aria and he was well rewarded with the biggest ovation of the evening. There was even a moment where he broke character and smiled back at the audience.
During the subsequent scene with Gilda, “Dio! mia Gilda!,” Chioldi brought back that vigor in his voice from the first act singing Verdi’s syncopated rhythms with accentuated phrases; “Ah! Solo per me l’infamia” was filled with determination for vengeance. Accompanied by Daniele Rustioni’s energetic conducting, Chioldi’s voice thundered in this section before returning to the tender and caressing timbre in his “Piange fanciulla.” While there was a reassuring tone to his singing one could also hear the pain and lament as he sang “Fa il pianto sul mio cor.” And in the “Si Vendetta,” the baritone sang with grit and force, ending the exciting duet with a well-sustained and powerful A flat.
In the third act, Chioldi shined in the final scene with Gilda as his “Non morir, mio tesoro, pietate…Mia colomba, lasciarmi non dei!” was moving; his “Se t’involi, qui sol rimarrei. Non morire, o ch’io teco morrò!” communicated pure pain. At the end, he took moments between “Gilda! mia Gilda!… è morta!” which added to the tragedy.
When Chioldi ran in for his curtain call he was greeted by a standing ovation and “bravos.” Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 25 years to hear him in a lead role on the Met stage.
A Sweet and Lyric Voice
Rosa Feola reprised Gilda, the role of her Met debut in 2019. It is a part that the soprano has sung all over the world. Fortunately her Gilda is not the innocent girl that one is used to but a gutsy and determined character. In this production, Gilda fought off several men while being kidnapped and the confrontation in Act two during “Si Vendetta” was defiant and intense. Even her death scene showed this Gilda had agency.
However, vocally, Feola started off a bit tentative. In her opening duet with Chioldi, one could hear glimpses of her lyric tone emerge; her “Oh quanto dolor! che spremere” was sung with a warmer and rounder sound than one is used to. However, whenever she ascended to the higher tesstiura of the duet, she sounded as if she was pushing her sound. That said, Feola’s voice blended well with Chioldi.
During “È il sol dell’anima, la vita è amore” her entrance on the line “Ah, de’ miei vergini sogni son queste” started with a piano that slowly crescendoed into the next phrase; one could hear the delicacy of her tone. However, as she went into her lower notes, the voice seemed to get lost under Piotr Beczala’s weightier tone and the voices never seemed to be comfortable with each other as Feola wanted to go lighter with her staccato phrases, while Beczala sang with a more vibrant tone. You could hear the imbalance with their voices during the “Addio” as the soprano was pushed to her limits. The exception was her High D flat which rang much more than Beczala’s.
The “Caro nome” was also a bit hesitant particularly in the high notes where she especially seemed struggle. There were some pitchy tones and the cadenza seemed a bit pushed especially as she reached the E flat. However, there was some gorgeous phrasing particularly in the middle of her voice as each line melted into the next especially in “Le delizie dell’amor, Mi dei sempre rammentar!” and “A te sempre volerà.” The portamenti were smooth and the coloratura was incredibly accurate, showing the flexibility of the voice.
Like Chioldi, Feola really came into her own during the second and third acts. The sopranos’ lyric qualities were on full display during the duet “Tutte le feste al tempio,” as Feola commenced the duet with a nostalgic and weeping tone. The voice’s timbre was round and each phrase had a sense of yearning. But as the music moved and was propelled by the orchestra, her soprano took on a darker tone on “E con ardente palpito Amor mi protestò,” eventually crescendoing to a forte. During the “Piangi fanciulla,” that weeping tone returned and the voice’s pure qualities took over. She ended the scene with an imposing “Si Vendetta” which saw her soprano soar with defiance and resounding high E flat.
In the third act, Feola brought beautiful support to the quartet with lush high notes and connected phrases that stood out from the rest of the voices. The trio saw Feola bring out all the power of her voice, moving towards a fuller lyric sound and really digging into the text. In many ways, it was the most dramatic singing from the soprano all evening. And in the final duet “Lassu in cielo,” she sang with tenderness and delicacy never losing the gleaming tone. Together with Chioldi, Feola created an emotional death scene.
The Leading Man
Piotr Beczala returned to the Duke of Mantua, the role with which he debuted at the Met in 2006 in the Otto Schenk production. In 2013, he premiered the Michael Mayer production, making this Bartlett Sher staging the Polish tenor’s third “Rigoletto” production. Since his debut, the tenor has added heavier roles to his repertoire and the voice has also grown in size and weight. With those changes, Beczala has lost some of the flexibility he used to have.
That being said, the tenor had a good evening playing the Duke with a youthful quality and sometimes even bringing “innocence” to the character, especially during his aria “Parmi veder le lagrime.” But there were also moments of pure sexual lust like in Act three where he lavished over Vaduhi Abrahamyan’s Maddalena and couldn’t seem to take his eyes or hands off of her.
He opened the first act with a virtuosic display of fast and playful singing in “Della mia bella incognita borghese” and his “Quest o quella” was light and lively as he played with the tempo to emphasize some of his higher notes. The duet with the Countess Ceprano was also filled with sensual tones as both Beczala and Sylvia d’Eramo’s voices harmonized beautifully together.
During “È il sol dell’anima, la vita è amore,” Beczala displayed warmth and passionate phrases with his voice gleaming in the auditorium. However, as noted there was some imbalance between him and Feola as Beczala tended to cover some of the soprano’s lyrical sound. The cadenza was also a bit messy and pitchy as they seemed to have a hard time blending their two distinct tones together. But the “Addio… speranza ed anima” showed Beczala’s ringing High D flat and energetic qualities as he ran in and out of the set.
In Act two, Beczala entered the scene with force as he delivered an agitated “Ella mi fu rapita!” The tone slowly calmed and he displayed his mezza voce toward the end of the recitative. During the “Parmi veder le lagrime” Beczala sang with a beautiful tone and delivered some of his most expressive phrases. However, during the cadenza, the tenor had a hard time with the trill, which sounded a bit labored, and when he connected the phrase into the final note, there were noticeable intonation issues.
His subsequent “Possente amor mi chiama” was virtuosic as he sang with flexible runs and with a light tone in the opening of the cabaletta. His high notes were resonant and there was an ardent quality to his timbre, especially as he caressed the lines “Apprenda ch’anco in trono.” And just before the ending of the stanza he extended the phrase “Schiavi, amor” in such a playful manner. Unlike most tenors who cut the repeat, Beczala actually sang the cabaletta twice and during the interlude interpolated a vibrant high note. During the repetition, Beczala sang with more drive and vigor. The voice was weightier and potent and the phrasing was more accentuated, emphasizing the Duke’s lust and command. And during the repeat, Beczala relished in extending high notes on “Consolar quel cor” and “Ha degli schiavi Amor.”
In the third act, Beczala sang a charming “La donna è mobile” with attention to the text and precise staccato lines. The voice resonated with a suave tone and he was playful with his accents on certain words. But at the end of the aria, the cadenza was marred by messy runs and a even wobblier final high B flat. It took him a few moments before the note stabilized and rang vibrantly. He followed that up with a charming “Bella figlia dell’amore.” Beczala used his lyric qualities and lightened the tone as he reached the passagio before opening the sound up to his higher register. Throughout the quartet, his attention was on Maddalena as he continuously pulled her closer to him.
A Strong Supporting Cast
Varduhi Abrahamyan, in her Met debut season, proved to be a seductive Maddalena with her suave melting mezzo. During the quartet, you could hear her biting into the staccato lines “Ah! ah! rido ben di core” and emphasizing the text with superb diction. In the trio, she had a bigger sound that highlighted the determination of her character to save the Duke. Abrahamyan’s lower notes were especially present and were incredibly potent. Unlike most Maddalena rendition, which are all about seductive equalities, the mezzo added some vulnerability to the character. While in the quartet, she was suggestive with the Duke, in the trio there was a sense of desperation in her movements and her facial expressions. One could sense that this character really fell for the Duke and in many ways created a foil to Gilda.
Andrea Mastroni was a charismatic Sparafucile. His first entrance during his exchange with Rigoletto,” Quel vecchio maledivami” wasn’t haunting nor was it dangerous. Instead, it was lyrical and youthful. Mastroni sang with legato lines that emphasized a mischievous Sparafucile. However, when he went into his lower voice, one sensed the dangerous potential especially in his final “Sparafucile,” which resonated with darkness. In the Act three trio, this Sparafucile wasn’t as domineering with his sister and you could sense a more balanced relationship. Mastroni’s singing was determined and filled with a booming sound. In many ways, you could hear the sound of his voice feel reminiscent of laughter.
In the role of Monterone, Craig Colclough sang with a dusky tone that had both frailty and strength. While there were moments where the orchestra covered him during his exchange with Rigoletto in the first act, the bass-baritone gave it his all. One could feel the character’s pain and struggle.
Sylvia D’Eramo was a flirty Countess Ceprano who had a silky voice. In this production she gets slapped for her behavior with the Count and D’Eramo was able to show her vulnerability towards the Count, who doesn’t seem like the nice man he is painted as in other productions.
Eve Gigliotti was a striking Giovanna with a plush and round contralto-sounding voice that carried well into the hall. Her Giovanna was not be trusted and she quickly hid and ran when they were kidnapping Gilda.
Great Italian Conducting
In the pit, Daniele Rustioni led the Met orchestra in what I can confidently call the best conducting of an Italian opera at the Met in 2021-22. And it’s not even close unfortunately.
Rustioni led the music with agency and added an extra level of drama with his attention to detail. The prelude began with harrowing tremolos and extended chords that foreshadowed the impending tragedy. Then in the first concertante, Rustioni gave the orchestra a driving tempo that also allowed the soloists to shine. The cello soloist in the first exchange between Rigoletto and Sparafucile was commendable for his portamenti and lush tone. The “Addio” was filled with tension and drive while in the “Caro Nome,” the winds accompanied Feola beautifully.
In the “Cortigianni vil raza danata,” Rustioni emphasized the violin runs with sforzandos without ever exaggerating the attacks. The cello solo during the aria was also a great accompaniment, emphasizing the lament in Verdi’s music. The tempo was also measured and controlled but also dramatic and there was also a sense of moving the music and drama forward.
In the “Si vendetta” duet, Rustioni was always present with the singer but added an extra level of excitement with the resonant violin ostinatos. In the final duet “Lassù in cielo, vicino alla madre …,” he pulled out the violin line to create a balance between the dark string colors and the heavenly flute line. In all, it was conducting at its finest without any mannerisms or exaggerations.
But for all the wonderful musicianship, it was not a perfect evening as the production proved to be a huge letdown.
After the Met set Verdi’s famed work in a flashy but superficial Las Vegas production, the company chose Bartlett Sher to direct a new production. The production, which opened in Germany in 2019, is set in the 1920s in the Weimar Republic which was “a vibrant yet troubled era following the First World War.” As Sher explained in the program notes, “his choice of setting was suggested by what he calls the ‘pre-fascist conditions’ on display in ‘Rigoletto,’ as well as its contemporary resonance.” He also noted that the time had “decadent parties and the sound of manic laughter” and it was “the beginning of film.” For this production, Sher uses a turntable which “revolves and the stage images snap like a camera shutter.”
But while described in the program notes, it is merely a concept that never comes to fruition. There is no decadent party that opens the opera but a tame and glitzy set that looks like a stripped-down Las Vegas from the previous production. There is no resemblance to a troubled period nor is there really violence or glimpses of fascism. And the turntable does not resemble the images snapping in the camera shutter. It is merely a distraction.
Throughout the first half of the opera, the turntable is abused in such a way that every time a singer has a solo, it starts to move with no purpose. The opening of the opera starts in a dark alley with the Duke of Mantua singing “quest o quella” while the set opens up to the palace. But it takes at least five minutes for the set to open and audiences must see the slow-moving contraption through the Duke’s first solo and duet. For the remainder of the scene, Sher stays in the red palace with gold columns. But toward the end of the concertante, the turntable begins to move into the alleyway without the music finishing. While it is understandable Sher wants to move the action forward, it is in clear opposition to the music. The same happens during Rigoletto’s monologue “Pari siamo.” In the middle of this introspective moment, Sher starts to reveal Gilda walking up and down the stairs as the turntable moves to reveal a house. Once again one asks why the choice if Verdi gives very clear beats when Gilda is to appear. More importantly, it distracts from this very dramatic moment for the character.
And it only continued throughout the act. During the duet between Gilda and the Duke, the set once again turned to the alleyway moving away from the house only to return to the house for the “Addio” duet. It only brought questions to my head as to why it was necessary for Gilda to go outside and then back inside. More importantly, if Gilda is hiding from her father, why would she go outside with the Duke to sing a very romantic duet, given that anyone can see her. Secondly, what was the reasoning for moving the set if it was going to reveal the alleyway? Did Sher want to give us a literal sense of where they were in time?
The movement did not stop there as the turntable moved once again to show the court enter and steal Gilda, revealing the same alleyway the audience had just pulled away from.
All while watching this first part, I questioned why Sher wanted to make everything so literal. It almost felt like he did not trust the music or the libretto.
In the second half of the opera, the turntable was used much less, which gave the device unevenness and left me questioning why he even needed it to tell his story. In the second act, the device was used at the beginning of the act, as it started once again in the alleyway and revealed the same red palace but this time with a seat and desk. The device was then used during the first part of “Possente amor mi chiama,” which turned around to reveal Gilda getting dressed to be raped by the Duke. Like the previous uses, the reveal added no new information to the story and simply distracted from the aria that was being sung. And after that, the turntable remained in place. The third act started out with the alleyway turning to reveal the tavern. It was only used at the end of the opera as the Duke repeats “La Donna e Mobile” and it reveals the palace and then finally the alleyway. Why the palace was revealed at the end is one of the many questions I have to ask about this production; I have no answer, nor did the production give us anything to think about.
But Sher’s turntable was not the only distracting part of the production. Many of his blocking choices left one questioning his direction. Why does Gilda run up and down the stairs while Rigoletto is singing “Pari siamo? Why is Giovanna taking out wine during the duet with Gilda and Rigoletto and why does it matter where she hangs a coat? Why is Gilda walking up and down the stairs while she sings her duet with Rigoletto in a very intimate moment? And finally, why do we need to see the Duke pay Giovanna all while Gilda and Rigoletto are singing a beautiful duet? All these blocking choices only served to take the attention away from the performers and the music.
Then there was the constant walking in and out of doors. This motif began during the “Addio” duet where Gilda and the Duke begin in separate rooms and then the Duke runs in and out of the door creating more of a distraction. The same happened in the third act as Maddalena and Sparafucile walked in and out of the tavern incessantly with no purpose. It felt like they were moving for the sake of moving and it took away from their characters.
The other motif of the evening was the constant walking up and down the stairs. In the first act with Gilda and Rigoletto and then in the tavern. All the walking up and down just felt like an exercise in movement and added little to the plot or for that matter felt motivated.
There was also a lack of intimacy in the duets with Gilda and Rigoletto who were constantly looking away and standing apart from each other. In the first duet, there was even a moment where Gilda was on the second floor of the house and Rigoletto was on the first. If this is a moment of conversation, why are they separated? And in the second act where Rigoletto is supposedly consoling his daughter, why would he be away from her?
The costumes by Catherine Zuber brought back the signature leather coat which has been seen in every Bartlett Sher production at the Met (a cliché at this point that lacks originality and significance). If this was the 1920s, why is this leather coat constantly seen in the Met’s “Barber of Seville” or “Le Comte Ory” when those are set in the 1800s or in the company’s stylized “Fellini” “Les Contes d’Hoffmann.” The leather coat just made me wonder what exactly is it saying about the character of Rigoletto or the Duke in the context of Sher Operatic Universe. Then there was Gilda’s Act one costume, which made the character look more like Rigoletto’s wife.
Sets by Michael Yeargan were austere and lacked much detail. The tavern and house were gray and black while the palace was red with gold columns that could have been from any time period in the world. The most 1920s aspect of the production was the art deco curtain which was reminiscent of a Picasso painting.
But even if this production asked more questions and answered very little, there was one thing to commend. The character of Monterone finally got center stage. During the first act’s first scene, Craig Colclough’s interpretation had moments of frailty as Rigoletto kicks him to the floor and shows his weakened state. And then he defiantly gets back up and curses Rigoletto. It was a stellar scene that added gravitas to an otherwise bland staging. The second time Monterone showed up, Colclough once again gave drama to the scene as his Monterone threw the Duke’s papers to the floor and made his final moments adding fuel to Rigoletto’s vengeance.
Ultimately, this “Rigoletto” was defined by a fantastic cast cast brought together by vibrant musicality of Rustioni.