Royal Opera House Muscat 2022 Review: Rigoletto

Vladislav Sulimski Triumphs in the Title Role in Franco Zeffirelli’s Final production

By Francisco Salazar

On Jan. 21, the Royal Opera House Muscat presented the second performance of Franco Zefirelli’s new “Rigoletto.”

The evening presented a new cast of rising stars and veteran singers and brought to life a production that transports audiences back to a time when singing and music were at the center of opera.

The result was a refreshing evening with Vladislav Sulimski shining in the title role and making a case as a baritone the world should look out for.

A Final Bow 

Before Franco Zefirelli died in 2019, the director left behind a production of “Rigoletto,” with pictures of the set designs and would be a co-production with the Royal Opera House Muscat, Lithuanian Opera, and the Arena di Verona. Three years later the production has finally arrived and the result is classic Zefirelli.

For years, the Italian director split critics with many calling him out for his lavish and grand sets that supposedly distracted from the performers. For this critic, the director’s work was all about telling the story and bringing the audience into the world of the opera. With his final production Zeffirelli, along with stage director Stefano Trespidi, does just that.

The production brings audiences into a 1520s palace, a garden, and a shipwreck in the outskirts of Mantua. The sets are filled with the expected detail from any Zefirelli production. For instance, the Act two palace, has a large statue at the back of the stage and the walls resemble marble from the time period, each painted with a different design. The floors are all tiled with gold and silver and the columns resemble those of the renaissance. There are lavish desks with books and a globe-like item. The Act one scene two set, which represents Rigoletto’s house, resembles a real garden with different types of plants and bricks that create a truly immersive experience. The Act three shipwreck is filled with uneven rocks with wooden doors and a decaying boat. This scene actually looks like one pulled out from a ghost story and enhances the darkness of the entire act.

The costumes are all in the style of the time and help to tell the story. Gilda begins with a burgundy dress and then in Act two goes to a white bedgown before ending her night dressed in black. Rigoletto has a similar color palette, also starting with red and moving to black.

The choral sequences are all well-staged with movement in places where necessary and they never detract from the singers on stage. One of the most clever choices made was in Act one scene one where Monterone’s daughter is seen running around the stage and trying to escape her fate. She is also the last person seen on the stage as they arrest her father at the end of the scene. Durin the concertato of that same scene, there is a strong emphasis on the chorus and Count Ceprano at the center of the stage, with Rigoletto and the Duke are in the background. It’s actually quite striking as it seemingly gives more agency to the Count, while also allowing us to see how the Duke and Rigoletto are really controlling the narrative. The trio in Act three, is also filled with tension as Maddalena and Sparfucile confront each other and in many ways is staged as a battle for control. Maddalena never uses force while Sparafucile does. The result is filled with drama and unpredictability.

But what is most astonishing about this production is how it feels like you are actually watching an opera. The concentration is on the action, the singers, and the music. There are no distractions or concepts that one has to wrap your head around. There is nothing imposed. It is simply the story that allows the performers to interpret the work with their voices and interactions. And in many ways, it creates a deeper and more meaningful experience that gives freshness to the classic work.

My biggest qualm of the evening for the production was in the first scene of the opera. I thought the scene lacked in energy, perhaps because it needed more performers and dancers to fill out the lavishness and intention of a Zefirelli production. The masks also seemed to take away from the beauty of the staging but it is understandable given the moment we are living.

A Heartbreaking Turn

In the title role ​Vladislav Sulimski gave an incredible performance full of nuance and virtuosic singing. When he entered the stage during prelude, he was already living as the character with a slight limp and a hump that showed his fragility. During the first scene Sulimski was lively and physical, moving about the stage with some pompousness. He was simply playing the jester and trying to bring out laughs to each of his stage partners. And that was present in “Voi congiuraste contro noi, signore” as Sulimski’s voice boomed with an authoritative sound.

In the ensuing scene, after being damned by Monterone, the fragility of his character came out in his monologue “Pari siamo!…” It may not have been as introspective or filled with as many varying dynamics as one may be used to, but the fact that Sulimski preferred to sing with a forte sound brought out the pain in Rigoletto. There was one moment where the baritone did make an impressive crescendo during the line “il pianto” during which he went from a mezzo piano to a forte that was striking and affecting.

Then in his duet with Gilda “Deh, non parlare al misero,” the baritone sang with a tender warm voice which connected evenly with each phrase. One could hear pain in the phrase “Moria… le zolle coprano” and then a glimmer of hope in his tone as he sang “O Dio, sii ringraziato!” In “Ah! veglia o donna questo fior,” he sang with a assertive and caressing timbre as he took his Gilda, Enkeleda Kamani​, into his arms. Returning at the end of the act, in his interactions with the court, he was once again in his jester character, mocking them. But as he realized that it was him who had been played, Sulimski let out a powerful “maledizione” that foreshadowed the impending tragedy to come.

Act two was perhaps the baritone’s best as he entered singing his “La ra, la ra, la la…” with a big round sound. It was less playful than one is used to and more of a cry. During “Cortigiani vil razza dannata,” Sulimski let out a fury of sound as he ran into the crowded chorus who continuously stopped him from entering the Duke’s chambers. Realizing he was powerless, the baritone got down on his knees begging as he sang “Ah! Ebben, piango Marullo… Signore.” He moved about the stage following Marullo on his knees with his yearning sound. It was quite striking to watch and as he entered the legato line “Miei signori… perdono, pietate…” Sulimski sang with a beautful legato line all while emphasizing the text and showing Rigoletto’s desperation. In his following scene with Gilda there was a glimmer of light in his singing upon seeing her but the fury came through in his voice as he sang the lines “Ah! Solo per me l’infamia, A te chiedeva, o Dio …” There was authoratative determination in his booming baritone and one could sense the drive for vengeance. It calmed during “piangi fanciulla” as he returned to that caressing line and noble sound from the first act. That was emphasized further as he lied on the floor with Gilda in his arms. But the aggressive nature of his character returned in “Si vendetta” as the voice took on more force and he accented certain lines to emphasize his fury. As he stormed out of the palace, the tenderness in Rigoletto that one had seen was gone, leaving only a character driven by revenge.

That revenge climaxed at the end of Act three as he entered the stage in the final scene and mocked what he thinks is the Duke. There was even a moment where he stepped on the body. There was a slight snarl of delight in his vocal display as he delivered “gli è là! … morto! … Oh sì! vorrei vederlo! …Ma che importa? … è ben desso!” But as he heard the Duke deliver a reprisal of “La Donna e Mobile,” that happiness turned to horror. Sulimski’s physicality was unhinged almost as if one was watching a mad scene in an opera and delivering “Qual voce!… Illusion notturna è questa!” in a frenzy. The ensuing lines were also given an unpredicatbility and the baritone took his time to uncover the body. Upon realizing that it has been Gilda the whole, that desperation returned with each line given a breathy sound. In the final duet “lassu in ciel,” the baritone sang with passion and intensity especially on the lines “Non morir, mio tesoro, pietate…” emphasizing the pain in his character. And at the end of the opera Sulimski delivered one of the best moments of the evening. Upon seeing the dead Gilda, he spaced out his “Gilda! mia Gilda!… è morta!” giving us a sense of a shocked man not ready to let go. The spacing of each phrase and the silence it created in the auditoirum allowed the moment to be more dramatic and tense.

It’s hard to describe every single detail in Sulimski’s portrayal but what one could say is that this a Rigoletto that has to be seen on all the major stages of the world.

A Pleasant Sound

Enkeleda Kamani​ sang the role of Gilda and had a mixed evening that began shakily. The soprano has a pleasant soubrette voice that lacks a full middle but shines in the higher tessitura. Her opening duet with Rigoletto, “Deh, non parlare al misero” saw the soprano sing with a svelte sound that resonated but sometimes got overpowered by Sulimski’s booming baritone.

In her duet with Magri, “È il sol dell’anima, la vita è amore,” she phrased her “Ah, de’ miei vergini sogni son queste” with gorgeous connected lines that helped to bring out Gilda’s innocence. Her looks to the Duke during the duet were filled with purity and one could sense this was a young girl discovering love for the first time. As she arrived at the cadenza there was a sense of easiness in the coloratura lines. The “Addio addio” was also sung with a solid technique and a bright shimmering D flat.

During her subsequent “Caro Nome,” Kamani made some lovely phrases especially in the syncopated rhythms that resembled a songbird. There was such tenderness and lightness in the singing that it was a bit surprising that when she got to the cadenza there was slight hesitance as she ascended to the High E flat. Kamani spaced each phrase which made the passage a bit awkward and took away the momentum of the climactic moment. The notes also sounded as if she was pinching them, the sound forced out. However, the soprano was able to finalize the aria with a gorgeous sustained note on “Caro nome tuo sarà.” She extended the note as if she didn’t want to let go of the dreamlike state she was put under by the Duke.

In Act two audiences saw a hurt and torn woman. Kamani sang her entire duet, “Tutte le feste al tempio” while lying down and brought lyric colors to her voice. The soprano does not have a natural round lyric timbre and sometimes it felt thin in this dramatic moment. Still, she held her own with gorgeous legato lines and sweetness that projected into the auditorium. At one moment during the phrase “Amor mi protestò,” the soprano began the line with a soft piano and crescendoed to a forte, giving the text greater pain. In the second section of the duet, “Piangi fanciulla,” Kamani gave her “Padre, in voi parla un angiol” a yearning sound that emphasized the cries in Gilda’s music. Her diction was also quite astonishing as one could understand each line to perfection. The “Vendetta” duet was sung with authority and defiance but was a bit underwhelming as the soprano’s voice got lost in the orchestra.

In Act three Kamani struggled to find her footing as she was mostly on stage left and from where I was sitting, she was not always visible. Her ensemble work in the quartet and trio was sung with exactitude but was sometimes inaudible especially in the trio where the balance between the thunder and blustering orchestra, as well as her colleagues, covered her. But thankfully for the final duet “Lassu in cielo,” she truly arrived, singing with delicacy and angelic colors. This was not a Gilda who was in pain, it was a woman resigned to her death. Her phrase “Lassù in cielo, vicino alla madre …In eterno per voi pregherò,” was sung with such brightness and ethereal colors that it made the moment all the more painful. 

Uneven Duke

In the role of the Duke, Ivan Magri was a frivolous character who was having fun throughout the evening. Throughout each act, he controlled the space with his charismatic stage presence. However, vocally Magri was a bit uneven. Even though, he possesses an even middle voice with a secure top that rings into the auditorium, Magri sang with a brash timbre and aggressive accents throughout. His “Quest o quella” was aggressive in the first stanza, filled with fortes and accents, while in his second stanza there was softer singing; he eventually returned to the accented phrasing that seemed a bit off for the scene.

In his duet with Gilda, the tenor displayed a more lyrical sound with a gorgeous legato line. Here he finally displayed his bel canto expertise and gave an ardent reading of “È il sol dell’anima, la vita è amore.” His voice while a bit heftier than Kamani’s blended well at the end, especially in their cadenza as their voices displayed agility and ringing high notes.

In his Act two aria “Parmi veder le lagrime,” the tenor struggled to get a pure legato line. It seemed like he was pushing his voice during every phrase with unnecessary accents just to get a powerful sound out. His most radiant singing in the aria came during the cadenza which showcased his flexibility and his easiness into the high range. The cabaletta “Possente amor mi chiama” was also a bit uneven as he lacked power and flexibility throughout and seemed pressed for air. That eventually led to pushed high notes at the end. Still, he was able to sing the coloratura runs with purity and his opening recitative was filled with pianissimo singing and nice crescendi. 

His best act was without a doubt the final one as he dispatched a “La Donna è Mobile” with agility and charisma. Magri used the same accented phrasing but this time it worked as it showed the pompous attitude of his character. His second reprisal of the aria at the end of the opera was quite fascinating as he stretched out the final note and it rang into the hall beautifully.

Superstar Support

In the role of Maddalena, Maria Barakova brought a creamy mezzo with suave and seductive phrases in the quartet. In the ensuing trio, you could hear the desperation, which was emphasized by a more staccato and accented line. Her lower chest voice was also filled with gustiness.

​Antonio Di Matteo gave a Sparafucile a demonic quality. The bass has a sonorous timbre that is close to a basso profondo and his delivery of “Sparafucile” in Act one was chilling. In the trio, he was also filled with rage and booming power. As noted, his physicality with Barakova created a riveting dramatic moment.

Kurt Rydl sang the role of Count Ceprano with a round bass timbre that gave the character some new layers while ​Kristinn Sigmundsson sang Monterone with a chilling desperation. His Act three “Poiché fosti invano da me maledetto” was powerful and left you wanting to hear more. ​Christian Peregrino’s Marullo was frivolous and even upon seeing Rigoletto on the floor kneeling to him, this character had no pity.

Clarissa Leonardi’s Countess Ceprano was spirited and charismatic and her voice was rich, dark, and round. She blended well with Magri’s forte tenor to create a sensual moment between her and the Duke. Finally, ​Agostina Smimmero brought a luxurious voice to the short but crucial role of Giovanna.

In the pit, Jan Latham-Koenig gave a powerful reading of the score that was filled with precise rhythm and tempi that moved the music forward. His opening prelude was filled with threatening tremolos that eventually crescendoed into a bombastic sound of fury and drama. His interlude at the end of Act one as Gilda is stolen was also a highlight as the violin runs started piano and eventually crescendoed into a fortissimo that expressed the agitated moment.

But there was sometimes an imbalance between the orchestra and soloists. Many times Koenig was behind his soloists like in “Quest o quella,” the Act two “È il sol dell’anima,” and even in “Possente amor mi chiama.” Then there was the sound issue with the ensembles where singers were covered by the orchestra like in the aforementioned Act three trio in which most of the soloists were inaudible, and in the Act one scene one concertato.

Overall, this was an enjoyable evening in which Sulimski triumphed in the title role and Zeffirelli proved once more why opera is best when the story and music are given free reign.


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