Palau de les Arts 2018-19 Review: Rigoletto

Leo Nucci Makes History With His Iconic Interpretation of the Verdi Tragedy

By Mauricio Villa

The great Italian baritone Leo Nucci, who is already an opera legend, made history at the Palau de les Arts in Valencia, giving the first encore ever at the theatre by repeating the end of the duo “Si, Vendetta,” which closes the Act Two of “Rigoletto.” That alone made it a memorable evening. But it was made all the more potent by the appearances of tenor Celso Albelo as the Duke of Mantua, Roberto Abbado in the pit, and Emilio Sagi in charge of the production.

I would say that the performance offered the May 11, 2019 will be remembered for a long time.

THE Rigoletto

Leo Nucci IS Rigoletto. He has been singing the role for over 46 years (he debuted the role in 1973) and dominates all the hurdles of the score and the dramatic evolution of such a tragic character. It is completely astounding how he can sing so well at 77-years-old.

Being in possession of an expressive and potent voice with a dark timbre, secure high notes, and fluent phrasing, he gave a lesson of vocal longevity and health, as his voice sounded beautifully strong and the high notes were well-projected and sustained. The most mesmerizing were likely his high A flats in the “Vendetta” and final “Maledizione.” It is true that he often overuses portamenti or appogiature to approach some notes rather than a clean onset, and that he was slightly ahead the orchestra in “Cortiggiani” and “Si, vendetta,” but that could do little to undermine his work overall.

He has unlimited resources to color which were on full display during his interactions with “Count di Ceprano” or “Count di Monterone” in the first Act, during his duet with “Sparafucile,” and while addressing the courtiers with a cynical “Ah, voi dormiste,” which chilled to the bones. He has the power to portray rage and fury in moments like “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” or “Si, vendetta,” as well as abandonment, sadness or pity in his three duets with Gilda.

He portrayed the old hunchbacked “buffone” through his posture, which only emphasized how deeply he has embraced the character; he was even able to dance, turning and jumping on one leg to mock the courtiers. At another moment, he was jumping from one piece of the set to the other while looking desperately for his kidnapped daughter Gilda at the end of Act One.

Leo Nucci is an icon in the role of “Rigoletto” and the audience knew how to express gratitude by throwing confetti from the upper galleries of the theater during his final bow.

One of the Best Dukes

The Spanish tenor Celso Albelo is probably one of the best Duke of Mantua interpreters nowadays. He debuted with this role in 2006 alongside Nucci in Busetto.

While this role is renowned and constantly performed, it is deceptively difficult. Bigger voices suffer singing constantly in the passagio of the voice and struggle with the high notes, while lighter voices have difficulties with the density of the orchestra and the descent to low notes. Albelo has just the voice for the role.

Being in possession of a strong middle, breath-taking impossible high notes, perfect breath control for big legato phrases, astonishing diminuendi and a well-projected sound from the lower to the higher part of his register, he offered an immaculate performance of this role.

He started off funny and easy with “Questa o quella” before portraying a more lyrical and expressive sensitivity in his duet with Gilda “È il sol dell’anima;” this duet features two terrible ascensions to high B flat that he overcame with effortless and fluent legato phrases. His high D flat, which is interpolated by tradition at the end of “Adddio, addio Speranza ed anima,” surpassed the sound of the soprano and the orchestra.

But the highlight of his performance was his interpretation of the aria  “Ella mi fu rapita.” Here, he just gave a lesson of how the aria should be sung, paying attention to every dynamic marked on the score, producing soaring pianissimi and diminuendi on the several high A flats and always maintaining a sustained legato that reached the low notes smoothly. It seemed rather strange that he did not reach the high B flat in the aria or the high D natural at the end of the cabaletta “Possente amor mi chiama” (again notes interpolated by tradition and not written by Verdi on the score) as he usually does, but we might guess that this was due to musical choices of the conductor.

He made “La donna è mobile” look like an easy aria to sing and repeated his clever use of “mezza di voce” and smooth attack of the high notes during the quartet “Bella figlia dell´amore.” To end his performance, he made a perfect diminuendo on a high B natural, during his final repetition of “La donna è mobile” off-stage.

He was elegant, cynical and seductive on stage giving an aristocratic but passionate interpretation of the “Duke of Mantua.”

Not the Right Role

Maria Grazia Schiavo, who played the innocent “Gilda,” was not on the same vocal level of her companions. She has beautiful soprano voice, with a moderate vibrato and a dark color, but she has problems with coloratura and high notes, and the role of “Gilda” demands both.

The staccato high notes in her duet with “Rigoletto” and her aria “Caro Nome” in Act one were weak, plain and some of them off-pitch. The cadenza of her aria was cautious, attacking the first high B natural with forte sound and rushing through the cadenza for an insecure high staccato E flat.

The start of the duet “Tutte le feste al tempio” was sung with delicacy and intimacy. You could easily see that she was really comfortable in this passage, but then again she suffered at the end of “Si vendetta” while producing a shrill high E flat. Offering this piece as an encore did not help her much as the repetition of the high E flat sounded more grating.

She was more relaxed in Act three and the result was brilliant. She sung most of the act in Ensemble, with the exception of her final duet with “Rigoletto” which she sung beautifully as it is written with long legato phrases and does not go higher than B flat, a note that Schiavo can produce easily and which she colored with ethereal pianissimi.

Schiavo is a great singer, but maybe the role of Gilda is not adequate for her due to the coloratura passages and high notes (which by the way are not written in the score, where Gilda does not go higher than D flat ). On the stage Schiavo was a committed devoted Gilda, innocent and naïve at the beginning but self-secure and determined at the end when she sacrifices herself to save the life of the man who betrayed her.


The characterization of Italian bass Marco Spotti as the murderer Sparafucile was impressive. He displayed a rotund dark bass voice and solid low notes, as well as a cavernously low F at the end of his duet with Rigoletto in Act one. He portrayed a dangerous hired assassin transmitting a powerful sense of danger and fright.

The mezzo-soprano Nino Surguladze was sensual and arduous in the short appearance of her role Maddalena during the third act, dominating the lower register of her potent voice.

Emilio Sagi is one of the most prolific and renown Spanish stage directors, coming from a family with a strong artistic heritage  ( his grandfather and uncle were famous baritone ). He made his directorial debut in “La Traviata” in 1980 and has combined his career with the charge of Artistic director in theatres like the Teatro de la Zarzuela and Teatro Real in Madrid or Teatro Arriaga in Bilbao.

If there is something that defines Sagi’s work is his good taste and deep theatrical sense. He can easily adapt from funny light comedies (his production of the zarzuela “La del Manojo de Rosas” is legendary), to dark deep tragedies like “Rigoletto.” He has the background of tradition and good old theatre with a new look and perspective, and his production of “Rigoletto,” which premiered in 2003, proved to be effective, sinister and moving.

Being set in a diaphanous quadrangular grey space formed by a steep floor and a balcony gallery, the set evolves and develops with the action of the opera. The walls of the gallery reveal doors and staircases, grow into a platform in the first scene of Act one or dilates to create Rigoletto’s house in the final scene of Act one. The steep floor, which seems compact at the  beginning of the opera, breaks apart and moves to create labyrinthic shapes and confined spaces. It seems as if the floor were breaking up and disappearing as the drama progresses. At the end there is just only a tiny piece of inclined floor representing Sparafucile’s tavern.

Each scene is dominated by a few strong elements. There is a throne and a chandelier in the first scene; the silky blue transparent walls of Gilda’s confinement; the big bed with black sheets in Act Two; and the naked bare wall illuminated by an aseptic white light from a street lamp in Act three.

The lighting also reflects the psychology of every scene, choosing red for the lustful court of the “Duke,” blue for the house of “Rigoletto” reflecting Gilda’s ingenuity and purity. We also see cold white for Act two and a darker blue for the final act. The lighting and the sets explore themes of lust, greed, revenge, hate, love and redemption.

Apart from the deep sensorial impact of the production, Sagi is faithful to the libretto and the music, as he always does, so every scene is carefully built to explain the story. This moved the audience, portraying the sense of Piave’s libretto and Verdi’s music.

It was ingenious and original to present the chorus (usually off-stage) during the storm scene as silhouettes on the doors of the gallery like anonymous spectators of the murder of Gilda while they sing with “bocca chiusa” the phrases that Verdi wrote to recreate strong winds during the storm.

Roberto Abbado, the music Direcor of Les Arts gave a dramatic reading of the score, choosing slow and “pesante” tempi, like in the “overture” or the duet between “Rigoletto” and “Sparafucile.” He gave special attention to the bass strings, creating  an atmosphere of mystery and tension throughout the whole performance. Moments like “Monterone`s curse” in Act one or the storm in Act three were astonishing. Abbado knows how to produce a perfect balanced sound from the modest but efficient orchestra of “Palau de Les Arts.” There was also impeccable work from the male voices of the Coro de la Generalitat Valenciana, which is quite present during the opera.

It was a night to be remembered with the audience giving a standing ovation to the three protagonists, Sagi, and Abbado. But at the heart of it all was a legend – Leo Nucci.


ReviewsStage Reviews