Metropolitan Opera 2022-23 Review: Rigoletto
Quinn Kelsey, Benjamin Bernheim, Rosa Feola Shine Amidst Musical ChaosBy David Salazar
(Credit: Curtis Brown)
“Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto’ is one of my favorites and the use of music to reveal the horrific fact that the Duke is still alive is so chilling,” she noted.
Taking in the work on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022 for the first time in years, her words resonated rather deeply with me. The opera, which remains as timely as ever, is undoubtedly one of Verdi’s and the entire canon’s greatest. And like Laitman, it has always remained one of my favorites, exploring the damaging impact of a toxic patriarchal world where no man is without shame or blame (it was particularly striking this time around to realize that despite being a teenager, Gilda knows nothing of her family’s past; her father’s attempt to lock his daughter away from the world seems to include keeping her own story and identity from her as well).
A Step Up
“Rigoletto” has remained a staple at the Met forever. It’s virtually been in and out of the stage throughout the years, but I stopped attending it over the past few years (I hadn’t seen the opera at the Met since before the launch of OperaWire in late 2016).
The Met Opera’s faithfulness to Michael Mayer’s increasingly unnerving Las Vegas production which, once you’ve experienced the saturation from the spectacle itself, comes off as rather empty in its storytelling. It was the epitome of style over substance and after seeing it a few times, no singer however great could get me to subject myself to its charmlessness.
Bartlett Sher’s new production, which opened on New Year’s Eve last year, isn’t that much more revelatory in terms of presenting new ideas or adding newfound depth to the classic story. But at the very least it’s coherent narratively. Rigoletto’s role (which was never quite clear in Las Vegas) is at least back to status quo of Piave’s libretto, even if this is yet another transposition.
The customary dark leather jacket that is a staple of the Sher operatic universe is here (it’s really something that the Duke of Mantua, Romeo, Count Almaviva, and Otello, all get to wear the same-looking coat at some point in their respective operas; perhaps there’s some thematic connection there?) and bright color palettes that have served him best in Rossini comedies at the Met are also on display. He does manage some darker tableaus to fit with the general mood of “Rigoletto,” but he also relies heavily on the now cliched turntable that so many directors have aped repeatedly on the Met stage. For some, the movement allows for a shifting of place and time throughout (like during the cabaletta “Possente amor mi chiama where we see Gilda getting prepared for the Duke’s arrival…) and thus creates visual momentum and variety. And while that is true, the turntable also becomes a distraction here at some key dramatic moments. The aforementioned “Possente” creates some major visual dissonance for the audience – do we focus on the tenor singing the aria? or do we focus on Gilda’s preparations for her sexual encounter with the Duke? The music says one thing, the stage says another. When you have a tenor like this cast had, the choice is made that much more difficult.
The most egregious circumstance however was a more subtle one. “Pari siamo” is at the core of “Rigoletto.” It’s in this moment, when the titular character, having been damned by another fallen father, meditates on a recent conversation with the murderer Sparafucile. He remarks how both men are similarly toxic, a comparison that the opera continually draws between all the male characters as the story develops. But “Pari siamo” also allows us to see the purity and hope inside of Rigoletto’s heart, the possibility of him separating himself from the pack of predators. It’s an intimate passage and one of Verdi’s most radical (at the time). But then the turntable starts to move. That already tells the audience to shift its focus to what’s about to happen. And suddenly our attention shifts away from Rigoletto’s truly private and essential CHARACTER moment, to something else. This isn’t all that dissimilar from the new “Lucia di Lammermoor” production that opened earlier this year; it’s more subtle, but the visual dissonance is very much the same. One might argue that we live in a moment of multi-tasking and that this should be a no-brainer, but breaking the spell of a performer like Quinn Kelsey in the middle of a character-defining scene is unfortunate, if not disrespectful.
Then there’s some bizarre choices like the sudden abstraction during the Act three trio where the lights go red inside the inn and Gilda has a seeming “out of body” experience? It was hard to decipher what was going on and the fact that this kind of abstraction was never hinted at our set up anywhere else in the production (which was played as straight as possible) took you right out of the moment. Confusion, unless part of the thematic underpinning of the story, never makes for good storytelling. And in this case, there is nothing confusing about the Act three trio, which is as straightforward as “Rigoletto” gets both musically and dramatically (there is nothing subtle about a murder performed with a ghostly choral accompaniment and underscored by an orchestral thunderstorm).
Other aspects work better, including the dark alley scene between Rigoletto and Sparafucile, which also makes an argument for the “less is more” principle.
That said, this is a step up from the Las Vegas episode.
At the Podium
One of the things that is so incredible about “Rigoletto” within Verdi’s oeuvre is its pacing. This opera, like many of the composer’s greatest, moves. Verdi doesn’t waste a moment and every single note in the piece plays a crucial role in building its tension and tragedy. The conductor taking on this opera is very much a storyteller from those opening trombone calls to the final tutti D flat on which the opera ends.
Taking on that task in this production was Speranza Scappucci, making her Metropolitan Opera debut. While she got off to a promising start during that Preludio, the string tremolos surging forward toward the fortissimo orchestral explosions, things started to get a bit hairy once the singers took the stage.
Throughout the night it seemed that Scappucci was operating on extremes in terms of tempi. Often times, she was very flexible and allowed the lines to bend and flow organically, but more often than not, those moments would be followed by shockingly fast tempi that threatened to derail the entire enterprise. This first came into prominence during the opera’s big “concertato” moment, “Ah, siempre tu spingi lo scherzo all’estremo” where the tempo ramped up to chaotic effect for the singers; it took them a few bars to find themselves back in synch with the conductor.
Then there were tempo shifts that seemed to come out of nowhere, breaking the flow of the momentum and jerking you out of the action; moreover, they often felt out of control and unstable, rushing forward initially and then calming down. This was present at the Allegro vivo following Rigoletto’s “Ah no: è folia” at the end of “Pari siamo” and then at the start of “Addio… speranza ed anima.” It was present in the middle of Act two Gilda-Rigoletto duet “Tutte le feste al tempio” with Rigoletto’s entrance “Ah! solo per me l’infamia;” that passage is marked Più mosso, following the Andantino from Gilda’s opening lines, but in this case, the tempo felt like it almost doubled the previous one in how quickly it accelerated. It was also quite present during the “Sì vendetta” where the initial tempo surged forward so immediately that the actual stringendo written into the score near its climax sounded like a slowdown instead.
The moment where this kind of tempo whiplash stood out more was right before “Cortigiani,” Rigoletto’s other big solo moment. The aria’s tempo marking is Andante mosso agitato while the preceding tempo indication is a faster one – Allegro vivo. Yet, somehow, Andante mosso agitato was decidedly faster than the Allegro Vivo. Later in that same aria, the Cor anglais, which plays in duet with the baritone, sounded off during the entrance to “Miei signori, perdono.” She also came in so strongly on “Io vo mia figlia” that Kelsey’s “mia figlia,” the key to that parola scenica was inaudible.
Of course, Scappucci has license to interpret those tempo indications as she sees fit. She is directing the pace and motion of the drama to what she feels is most appropriate. And considering that this is an opera that has been done time and again, it was refreshing to hear her test the limits of what this music could do. But these emphatic tempi shifts stood out as unrefined for a number of reasons. They felt detached from transitions into them, when they existed (like in “Cortigiani”). The singers, who were all on their A-game, often sounded a bit uncomfortable. And, because of how extreme these tempi were, a lot of the rich orchestral details felt underplayed or ignored.
“Cortigiani” starts off with just strings, the violins playing triplet sixteenths, the violas and celli answering with their own intermittent triplet sixteenths, and the bass providing a repeated eighth pedal that lends weight and grounding to the scurrying violins. But most of the night, and especially in these fast sections, the weight in the lower strings was completely inaudible (please note that I was in the orchestra section and that might have had something to do with that experience).
There were other moments, where the textures simply didn’t cohere. The Act three trio was a mess of sounds without any real grounding and during the final duet, “Lassù… in ciel,” the violin syncopations were so accented as to sound plodding and heavy that they didn’t fit into the general soundscape of the moment, even disrupting it.
But for all this chaos, it is worth noting that in moments where the singers sounded uncomfortable with her tempi, Scappucci was quick to adjust to them, allowing them to bring their best to the performance.
And that’s exactly what they did.
Bringing Their Best
The soloists were as good as you could hope for with this opera.
As Maddalena, Mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina displayed a plush and punchy sound that matched perfectly with bass John Relyea throughout the trio. She played up her flirtation with the Duke throughout the quartet and then provided assertiveness throughout the trio.
In the role of Sparafucile, Relyea continued his revival with the company. Once a seeming fixture with the company throughout the early 2000s, he stopped appearing after the 2016 season. But he had a major triumph this year as the Grand Inquisitor in “Don Carlos” and then “Don Carlo” with the company, and he’s arguably in even finer form here as the deadly assassin. His entire duet with Rigoletto in Act one was fascinating, the bass digging into his thick and earthy tone with each phrase. He punctuated the duet with an incredibly potent low F that he sustained while walking off stage all the way through the coda of the passage. During the trio, he erupted with the firepower that he’d displayed in “Don Carlo,” his voice booming over the orchestral torrent, his phrasing precise and pointed.
As Gilda, Rosa Feola had a solid night overall. Despite some strange costuming, she did her utmost to provide intricate characterization and development. From her feverish rushing down the stairs to greet her father, you could sense a character full of energy and aspiration. As he rejected her desires for more knowledge, she responded with frustrated arm gestures that delineated the youth and angst of the character. When Giovanna opened the door for her, she rushed out with tremendous excitement and you could feel the relief as she stepped outside into freedom, her arms spread wide to receive it; it was a truly visceral moment to behold. You could sense the insecurity she felt upon finding the Duke, her body shifting into a protective shell before allowing herself to be taken by him. As he shouted out “Addio” from behind a closed door, Feola’s Gilda shifted from tentative and nervous to sprightly and excited.
But the ensuing Act is where her commitment to the character was at its most powerful. Her body was full of fear and confusion as she ran about the turning table, women racing after her to undress her. And when she exited the Duke’s room, she moved about the space slowly, her eyes downcast, searching for a place to be alone. Even when, moments later, her own father rushed to console her, you could feel the discomfort and even the sense of rejection as she moved away from him. You could feel the fear, the shame, the pain, and in one brief moment, the anger of what had happened to her.
In the final Act, Feola drove the quartet dramatically. The moment the Duke started his “Bella figlia dell’amore,” Feola’s expression shifted – she had heard those same words and suddenly she was curious to see what was happening. She slowly crept up those stairs, the trepidation apparent, and glimpsed inside. It took but a moment before she was rushing away down the stairs. It was one of the finest pieces of staging throughout the night and Feola’s commitment was what truly made it work.
Her vocal approach to the role was perfectly aligned to her characterization. On first listen, Feola’s voice is not what has become the typical “Gilda” voice – a light coloratura voice with extreme highs. Instead, Feola’s has greater weight and heft, especially in the middle range where she has brightness but also potency that cuts through. The rest of her range is solid and she navigates the registers fluidly, though there were moments where the shifts into the higher range were not quite as polished and she sounded a bit stretched. This was most noticeable during her opening duet with the high B flat triplet sixteenth notes (“non più, vi calmate”) and especially during the repeat of “Ah, veglia, donna, queto fiore” where her vocal line accompanies the baritone melody with leaps up and down the register; in this latter section, the ascents to the high Cs sounded timid and overly careful, lacking in clarity or brightness. But the rest of the duet was gloriously sung, with the soprano’s fuller sound matching baritone Quinn Kelsey’s powerful baritone. She displayed an elegant legato line in her “Quanto affetto,” her voice crescendoing as the line rose to first a G natural and then a high B flat a few bars later.
Right before the duet with the Duke, Feola delivered a glorious piano to forte crescendo on “T’amo…” before being cut off as the duet proper got underway. She matched tenor Ben Bernheim line for line through “È il sol dell’anima,” delivering ethereal piano singing during her opening “Ah, de’ miei vergini sogni son queste” that was answered by an equally glorious piano line from him. The two visibly reveled in the sensuality of the cadenza, their voices navigating the lines seamlessly. Even when they struggled with the tempo at the start of “Addio addio,” they barely missed a step, finding one another and surging forward.
“Caro nome” was a bit of a mixed bag for Feola. While the soprano was at her best during the delicate opening lines of the piece, her piano singing almost parlato in its effect and generating a powerful intimacy between audience and performer. Throughout Feola opted for a more connected vocal line, with the opening melody’s (which starts, essentially, with a descending E major scale) eighth rests less pronounced. It gave off the aria less of a playful feel and emphasized the romantic longing of Gilda. This choice also fit in nicely with the coloratura, generating a fluidity throughout. However, things started getting a bit off during the dolce sixth leaps on “a te” and the ensuing sixteenth note runs; the soprano sounded stretched and there was even a moment where she went a bit flat in the runs. But she eventually found her way back with the cadenza, and the aria’s coda where her elegant legato line returned us to the initial bliss.
Perhaps Feola’s standout moment came in the ensuing act during “Tutte le feste al tempio.” The recitative that preceded the duet proper, “Ciel! dammi coraggio” was sung with a glorious piano to forte crescendo that expressed Gilda’s fear and pain all at once. The opening lines of the duet were sung with utmost delicacy, the soprano slowly building up to the high A on “dagl’occhi il cor,” the high note suddenly full of rage and anger, before the line diminuendoed to a tearful resolution. The ensuing stanza was sung with a similar gentleness, but you could feel that she was taking a bit more time with it, thus amplifying the intensity so that the second climax to the high A, despite a similar dynamic phrasing, had a punchier, emotional impact and set up the increased agitation of what follows. This next section, which also climaxes with a triplet sixteen run to a high A, was even more intense in its anguish, allowing her to end it on a aptly harsher vocalization for “più crudel.” The rest of the duet was equally magical with Feola’s softer singing matching Kelsey’s glorious piano sound, but the way she phrased these opening bars was so powerful in not only the emotional weight they carry in the dramatic moment, but in the care and precision with which Feola delivered them and the resulting emotional impact they produced.
And while Feola also delivered well on the higher lines throughout the “Vendetta” duet, the quartet, and trio (a tough task for all three singers as mentioned), the final duet was another moment of sublime singing from the soprano.”Lassù in ciel” was delivered with the utmost delicacy of sound, each note angelic in its purity. On the repeat of the melody, she spun a similarly delicate legato line, her high B flats fluid and sparkling. The fermata high A natural a few bars featured a beautiful portamento down an octave before the soprano took her time before even more delicate piano singing on “lassù in ciel,” each one softer and slower than the one before, Gilda fading slowly while drawing the audience closer and closer to her every step of the way. That Kelsey matched her phrasing only added to the impact of this glorious moment.
In the role of the Duca di Mantua was tenor Benjamin Bernheim, who was supposed to debut at the Met a few years back, but had to wait thanks to COVID-19. But he’s here now and he was definitely worth the wait. From his opening “Questa o quella,” he exuded vocal confidence, every note coming through crystal clear, every phrase elegantly thrown off, emphasizing the carefree nature of the Duke. Personally, the climax of his aria, an interpolated high B flat in the middle of an aria that’s always on the move, is really hard to pull off smoothly. You can always feel tenors getting ready for this big moment and then when it comes, they drag it out, which unfortunately undercuts everything else that makes this aria so emblematic of the Duke’s character. Bernheim managed to elegantly pull off the high note without killing the momentum of the piece (high notes throughout the night were always secure with clean cutoffs).
Elegant is probably an apt word for his performance on the whole, especially for this opera where the Duke is called on to sing one glorious, soaring bel canto melody after another.
The explosion of sound on “T’amo; ripetilo sì caro accento” built on Feola’s previous crescendo on her own “T’amo,” ramping up the energy of the moment. His phrasing of “È il sol dell’anima” featured a polished legato line, each phrase building from the previous one before blossoming into a sublime high B flat on “per te” that then melted into an equally impassioned diminuendo on the ensuing “d’invidia agli uomini sarò per te.” The return of this vocal ascent was somehow even more potent than the previous one with the diminuendo even stronger, a sign of the vocal flexibility that Bernheim displayed throughout. At the close of the duet, his piano singing blended with Feola’s almost as one with the cadenza, as noted, spot on through the several runs.
“Ella mi fu rapita” is the tenor’s big moment, not only vocally, but also dramatically, allowing for a moment of potential contrast and depth. From the opening line of the recitativo to the end of the aria, Bernheim was all in on delivering a performance of utmost intensity. His initial recitativo was colored by bitterness with the ensuing smoothness of his legato on “E dove ora sarà quell’angiol caro?” transitioning into a warmer timbre that hinted at his longing for Gilda. The final Adagio preceding “Parmi veder le lagrime” featured an exquisite run up to a sparkling high B double flat and a subsequent pained diminuendo. The aria proper was one expansive legato line that commenced with utmost softeness and tenderness, each successive peak and valley featuring fluid crescendoes and diminuendoes, each one ramping up the intensity toward the climactic high B flat near the end of the aria, where the tenor let loose with everything he had. After the passion of that top note, the tenor pulled back to his most gentle piano of the passage before crescendoing once more into a final impassioned forte on the final G flat.
The ensuing cabaletta “Possente amor mi chiama” presented the tenor with an opportunity to expand on the brightness and lush sound of his opening “Questa o quella,” and he fully delivered on that, projecting powerfully into the auditorium.
In Act three, the tenor took things up a notch, delivering a spotless rendition of “La Donna è mobile,” each note of the dotted rhythm clear and articulated with vibrant sound. The climactic final B natural, and the preceding run, were delivered with bravura, the high note reverberating throughout the cavernous Met.
During the quartet, “Bella figlia dell’amore,” Bernheim delivered another display of glorious legato singing. It all started even a few bars earlier with a honeyed rendition of “Ogni saggezza chiudesi nel gaudio e nell’amore,” Bernheim bringing managing a spellbinding diminuendo up the F sharp in the second half of the phrase. As with “È il sol dell’anima,” the arched phrases of “Bell figlia” were elegantly shaped, the crescendoes subtle but present before melting into diminuendoes on the falling notes. And instead of doing the predictable crescendo from “Vieni, e senti” to the high B flat on “palpitar,” Bernheim actually diminuendoed the phrases, luring us in, before springing the high note with an even more intense forte, emphasizing the Duke’s manipulative game. When he re-entered the quartet, Bernheim gradually crescendoed toward the explosion of high notes that literally stops everyone else, allowing his voice to ring and further stamping his dramatic and musical authority on the scene. The restatement of the main melody was delivered with an even more intimate and sensual piano. Compounding Bernheim’s performance during this scene was how much fun he seemed to be having, not only flirting with Akhmetshina, but even caressing a cross on the wall, a childish smile on his face.
And then there was Quinn Kelsey. Note for note, moment for moment, this without any doubt in my mind is the most compelling Rigoletto that I’ve heard at the Met in a decade.
There was an aggressive nature to his opening scene, almost as if his Rigoletto were always on the defensive in this predatory world. His singing had rawness and pointedness, particularly as he poked fun at Ceprano and Monterone. That was quickly contrasted in the ensuing scene as he roamed about the streets, delivering a hushed and pained “Quel vecchio maledivami!” The defensiveness of the opening scene continued throughout the conversation with Sparafucile, Kelsey initially reserved but slowly opened up his sound as he inquired about Sparafucile’s methods.
During “Pari siamo,” Kelsey revealed the wide-ranging gamut of colors at his disposal. After opening with hushed pianissimo on the opening line, his voice exploded with intensity and desperation before resorting back to another soft repetition of “Quel vecchio maledivami!” Bitterness ensued during “O rabbia! esser difforme, esser buffone,” the voice shifting from grainy to soft and delicate as he sang “Il retaggio d’ogni uom m’è tolto, il pianto.”
As he remarked on the Duke, his voice became pointed; one could feel the anger boiling over, his voice growing in strength over the tremolo strings. And then, with the arrival of the woodwinds, he returned with a tender piano line, almost whispering parlato, his repetition of “Quel vecchio maledivami!” his softest yet. As the passage drew to its conclusion, he thundered on the final “Ah no, è follia,” the voice vibrant and powerful on the high E. More remarkable still was how contained Kelsey was on stage, and yet his body language expressed every one of these emotions. His body opened up at its most forte, as if ready to take on the world, only to shrink back into itself on his piano lines.
In the ensuing scene with Feola, he refused to meet her gaze throughout, drawing her frustration, even becoming a bit harsh as she insisted on hearing her story. But when he commenced “Deh, non parlare al misero,” his voice took on a honeyed hue full of yearning. As he crescendoed into “Morìa!” you could feel the pain and anger wrapped into one.
There was a gentle quality to “Ah, veglia, o donna, questo fiore,” but his scrambling about the place expressed his fear and worry, which was slowly assuaged by Feola’s loving presence.
In Act two, he arrived on the scene like a man on a mission, his head on a swivel, his body frantic as it searched for his missing Gilda. The “La rà, la rà, la rà” started off aggressive, the baritone placing forceful accents throughout. He responded to Ceprano’s “Ch’hai di nuovo, buffon?” with a perfect, angry imitation, placing a very strong accent on “buffon” and then adding a sarcastic quality to “più noioso voi siete.” The ensuing “La rà” grew more connected, adding a sense of desperation and yearning, each subsequent one sounding more like a man in pain. As the scene progressed, you could sense him losing hope, his sound diminuendoing. When the Page arrives, he recovered his strength, his voice growing metallic and accented, almost speaking some of the notes. “Sì, la mia figlia! d’una tal vittoria, che? adesso non ridete?” was heavily accented, allowing Kelsey to really express Rigoletto’s fury. Moreover, he started closing in on the other men around him, almost as if ready to strike them.
“Cortigiani” had its tempo issues and they seemed to overwhelm early on, but he still managed to make the most of the situation, his voice powerful and present, emphasizing Rigoletto’s anger. But as the aria transitioned away from anger toward pleading, his voice correspondingly softened. “Marullo, signore, tu ch’hai l’alma gentil come il core” retained some of the edge and accents, with the final “ohime” of the section sounding bitter, almost as if Rigoletto were disgusted at having to plead with these “vil razza” for help. “Miei signori, perdono, pietate!” featured some of the most captivating legato singing from the baritone on the evening, his voice practically weeping with every phrase, Rigoletto’s heart on his sleeve; the final “Pietas” during the cadenza, descending from the high F, were diminuendoed with such intensity so to depict heart-wrenching desperation and final one crescendoed and portamentoed into the high D flat with similar intensity.
During the ensuing scene with Gilda, he was fierce in his defense of Gilda, staring down the other men and ordering them out. “Ah! Solo per me l’infamia,” instead of bitter and reproachful, sounded sorrowful and hurt in its approach. It provided a seamless transition into the “Piangi,” with Kelsey crescendoing from the C natural into the ensuing D flat. From there his voice grew even more tender, each ensuing phrase a caress as he reached out toward his hurting daughter. Even when she rejected him, he continued searching for her, his repetition of the “piangi” melody even more lush than before. Even in the lower reaches of this section, his voice retained that gentility, always soft and warm.
That didn’t last long as he took on a harder and more aggressive edge with “Sì vendetta,” exploding with a sound at the climax of this passage.
In Act three, he retained this prickly vocal character, his low notes throughout the quartet dark and grainy, emphasizing Rigoletto’s resentment. In the final scene of the opera, he stood erect and resolute as he prepared to take the “Duke’s body,” his voice growing and growing as he proclaimed “Quest’è un buffone, ed un potente è questo! Ei sta sotto ai miei piedi! È desso! O gioia!” You could feel the excitement of this crescendo, exploding with vibrant sound on “O gioia” and then once again a few bars later on “All’onda!”
But when he realized the Duke was still alive, his body contorted, and his sound suddenly dimmed as he wondered what had happened. Desperation took over with the subsequent phrases aggressive, accented, and frantic. His “Chi t’ha colpita? (Who struck you?)” right before the final duet was almost howled, its effect spine-chilling. The answer was in this very guttural sound.
The final duet was magnetic not only for Feola’s interpretation but Kelsey’s pained pleas of “Non morire, mio tesoro, pietade! Mia colomba, lasciarmi non dei!” These were sung with the softest piano singing that Kelsey managed the entire evening, his voice but a weeping thread of sound, each time growing softer and more heart-breaking, especially as he held her in his arms.
He capped off this incredible performance with a lengthy pause, which added tremendous emotional suspense to the moments following Gilda’s death. His first “Gilda! mia Gilda” was spoken, the effect expressing how empty Rigoletto feels in this moment. At the climactic “La Maledizione” he interpolated a high G flat and A flat, both delivered ferociously to end the night.
This was a performance to remember from Kelsey, who drew you in with a truly immersive and powerful characterization.
And so we come to the end. What’s left to say, but that vocally this was some of the finest casts that the Met has assembled for a production this season. And it’s definitely worth checking out.