Review: Power Verdi – Gavanelli Leads Distinguished, World Class “Rigoletto” Cast – Dallas Opera, March 30, 2011

Over the past few years, I have attended live performances of the operas of Giuseppe Verdi, with particular interest in how those performances compare with those of what some appear to regard as a recent “Golden Age”, in which significant numbers of top rank Verdi singers were available to the world’s opera companies.

Fortunately, having attended San Francisco Opera performances since the mid-20th century, I was witness to live performances of most of the great Verdians of the past five decades, and am comfortable in making judgements as to whether there has been the decline in Verdian standards that some critics appear to believe is an uncontested fact. Readers of my reviews are well aware that I am deeply skeptical as the reality of their suggestion.

Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of the standard operatic repertory is that Verdi, like his exact contemporary Wagner (the bicentennials of the births of both composers will be celebrated in 2013), wrote vocal music so singularly unique and challenging that those singers who mastered each composer’s style were regarded as a new type (fach) of vocal performer.

When one uses the term “Verdian baritone” it conveys something as unique as do the terms “Wagnerian heldentenor” or “Wagnerian dramatic soprano.” And perhaps no part exemplifies the Verdian baritone better than the title role of Verdi’s “Rigoletto”.

Paolo Gavanelli’s Rigoletto

I have reported on several performances of “Rigoletto”, including the David McVicar production of “Rigoletto” at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London, which I found as good as any I had seen previously (see my review at 21st Century Verdi: Hvorostovsky, Ciofi, Kim, Aceto in McVicar’s Illuminating “Rigoletto” – ROH Covent Garden, October 11, 2010).

Two members of the current Dallas Opera production of  the opera (Paolo Gavanelli in the lead role and Raymond Aceto, the Sparafucile) were also in the Covent Garden production, in which the Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky alternated in the role with Gavanelli. Although I had reviewed a Gavanelli Rigoletto previously (see Gavanelli Dominates Strongly Cast S.F. “Rigoletto” – October 15, 2006), it was a great pleasure seeing him again in the role a half-decade later in the Dallas production.

[Below: Paolo Gavanelli as Rigoletto; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

Gavanelli’s performance was mesmerizing in every vocal detail, every movement, each gesture, and  word. His big numbers, such as “Pari siamo” and especially his electrifying “Cortigiani”, are the stuff of which lifetime memories are made.

Laura Claycomb’s Gilda

The role of his daughter Gilda is the most mportant Verdian role for a coloratura soprano. Gavanelli’s Gilda was Laura Claycomb. Hers is a lustrous voice, affecting in her duets with Gavanelli’s Rigoletto, passionate in those with tenor James Valenti’s Duke of Mantua.

[Below: Laura Claycomb as Gilda; edited image, based on a a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

Claycomb was technically brilliant in Gilda’s great aria “Caro Nome”, which Claycomb delivered, singing prone on the upper part of a two story set, for which she received an audience ovation.

Adept at performing the operas of Handel (for her Romilda, see Xerxes” Unexcelled – Houston Grand Opera, May, 2, 2010), Bellini (for her Giulietta, see Beautiful Singing in Bellini’s “Capuleti”: Pittsburgh Opera – May 3, 2008), Donizetti (for her Marie, see Claycomb, Podles, Banks Shine in Houston “Fille du Regiment” – November 3, 2007) and Britten (for her Tytania, see Incandescent Houston “Midsummer Night’s Dream” – January 25, 2009), she was alternating performances of this Verdi masterpiece with rehearsals for the upcoming Houston Grand Opera production of Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”, demonstrating mastery of the full range of coloratura assignments.

James Valenti’s Duke of Mantua

James Valenti played the Duke of Mantua with the proper degree of ardor, engaging the audience with his attractive lyric tenor that he showed off with interlocking cadenzas with Claycomb’s Gilda and both verses of his cabaletta Possente amor mi chiama, with appropriate variation in the post-stretta second verse.

(I thoroughly approve of the return of the fully performed cabaletta-stretta sections of Verdi operas and commend Dallas Opera, director Silverstein and conductor Pietro Rizzo for permitting this, and, of course, Valenti for making it so enjoyable.)

Playing the role as a self-assured lady killer, seemingly genuinely empathetic with every woman he meets, and anxious to show them how a bit of physical fun will lift their spirits, Valenti downplayed the sinister side of a Duke who executes courtiers, like Monterone, who object to his sexual exploitation of their daughters.

Now that he has received the recognition as the 2010 Richard Tucker award recipient, Valenti is approaching the stage in his career where he can begin to insist on costumes that fit him properly and on wearing wigs that are more becoming to his characters. In fact, he seemed most comfortable when he had shed the the costume’s shirt and jerkin to appear in only in trousers and an open robe.

[Below: the Duke of Mantua (James Valenti) is surrounded by courtiers who have brought lilies to celebrate his next female conquest; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

Raymond Aceto’s Sparafucile

The Dallas cast boasts another world class operatic voice, the Sparafucile of Raymond Aceto. Even though the role is too important to leave to a lesser singer, it is a luxury to have this basso cantante, with his secure legato and strength at the lower end of a basso’s range, in the intriguing role of the assasin-for-hire who prides himself on his honesty and fair dealing. Not quite big enough to be characterized as a starring role, but too big to be considered a comprimario part, it perhaps can be thought of as a super-comprimario.

Aceto is at a career stage in which he is already singing the great Verdian basso roles such as Fiesco in “Simon Boccanegra”, Zaccaria in “Nabucco” and Banquo in “Macbeth”, and one suspects, before too many years have passed, he will be singing Filippo in “Don Carlo” as well. Those seeing his Sparafucile are experiencing a rare treat.

(Aceto’s forays into the basso realm do not preclude his continuing to accept assignments in the bass-baritone repertory as well. Santa Fe Opera opera goers should look for his Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca at the 2012 Summer Festival.)

[Below: Raymond Aceto is Sparafucile: edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

Notes on the Stage Direction

Harry Silverstein’s stage direction always assures interesting bits of action, such as when Quinn Patrick’s Giovanna stands on a staircase holding her apron while Valenti’s count throws her the obligatory pouch of gold coins.

In the scene in the Duke’s apartments, Silverstein immobilizes the courtiers in a tableau during which no one moves but Gavanelli’s Rigoletto, searching for some sign of Gilda’s presence. In time, Stephen Hartley’s Marullo moves, at the moments when Rigoletto addresses him,  seeming to be both sensitive to the poignancy of Rigoletto’s situation and steadfast in his determination not to depart from the party line of his confreres.

For the second time this month, I was in a production revival directed by Silverstein in which the choristers hold flowers to throw in a moment of suspended “reality”. For the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s performance of Bizet’s “Carmen”, they were red roses that observers from above threw to Don Jose as he kills Carmen as if it were the matador’s kill in a bull-ring. In Dallas, the choristers hold lilies that they throw in the Duke’s path after they reveal to him that they have kidnapped Gilda to permit him to ravish her.

Notes on the Scenic Design

I have argued strongly for the preservation of opera productions that I regard as major works of art, that should not be discarded after a few performances, or even a few dozen. Yet, there are some production ideas that have proved more resilient than I believe they deserve to be. Among those ideas are Michael Yeargan’s conceptions for the set designs for the second and last scenes of “Rigoletto”. There are two physical productions that manifest his ideas, one co-owned by the Dallas Opera and Houston Grand Opera and another owned by the San Francisco Opera.

Yeargan’s ideas have at the core swift movement from scene to another, eliminating obligatory intermissions between, say, the first and second scenes and the third and fourth scenes of “Rigoletto”.

(Technically, “Rigoletto” consists of either a three or four act opera in which the first two scenes are either two acts or  comprise two scenes of act one, the third scene, act two or three and the fourth scene, act three or four. There is also a scene outside Rigoletto’s house between Rigoletto and Sparafucile that is done before the curtain or on some other part of the stage, but for which a separate set would not be expected.  There are, regardless of the number of acts and intermissions, four different scenes to be set.)

However,  the first and third scenes of “Rigoletto” take place in a supposedly sumptuous Mantuan palace (except in the down-and-out Mantua that David McVicar conceptualizes), the second scene takes place in town – in a neighborhood in which both Count Ceprano and Rigoletto reside – and the fourth scene in a sleazy inn on the outskirts of town.

Yeargan’s solution to the “Rigoletto” dilemma was to create a two story moving box set that could be pushed from the wings onto stage left (San Francisco’s production) or, first, stage left and later, stage right (the Dallas-Houston production). A staircase would link the two stories of what would be first Gilda’s apartment and afterward the inn in which Sparafucile and Maddalena ran their bed-and-breakfast and murder-for-hire enterprises.

[Below: the Duke of Mantua (James Valenti, upper floor, right) hides while Rigoletto (Paolo Gavanelli, front left) instructs Giovanna (Quinn Patrick) to keep Gilda (front, right) locked in the household; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

Although this element is common to both the San Francisco and Dallas-Houston productions, the other two scenes differ in appearance, but neither idea is enhanced by the solution to the scene changes.

The Dallas production belied even the raison d’etre for the two-story box representing the second and fourth scenes. Instead of a single intermission, there were two intermissions because the third and fourth scenes were separated into their original stand-alone acts. And technical difficulties of an undisclosed nature delayed the start of the final scene for some considerable time after the audience returned from the second intermission.

[Below: Rigoletto (Paolo Gavanelli) understands the full power of Monterone’s curse and how the seeking of vengeance led to the death of his daughter Gilda (Laura Claycomb, on ground; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

Conductor Pietro Rizzo’s support contributed to the excellent lead vocal performances. In addition, the supporting cast was noteworthy. In the last act Quartet, Valenti, Claycomb and Gavanelli were joined by the seductive mezzo of Kirstin Chavez’ Madddalena. Bradley Garvin was impressive as Count Monterone.

A strong Marullo can stand out among the threesome of Rigoletto’s principal (named) courtiers and Stephen Harley did just that, even though his fellow comprimarios Aaron Blake (Borsa) and Quincy Roberts (Count Ceprano) were also first rate. Katie Bolding was Countess Ceprano and Quinn Patrick properly sly and disobedient as the Rigoletto’s subversive servant, Giovanna.

The strength of the cast overwhelms any consideration not to attend the Dallas “Rigoletto” simply because there are better ways to show the second and fourth scenes. However, as opera companies in the American Southwest, in preparation for the Verdi bicentennial, inventory the physical productions of core Verdi works that they own or to which they have ready access, such funds as may be amassed for a new Verdi production, might be set aside for a hopefully elegant new production of “Rigoletto”.

For the record, I do approve of Carl Toms’ production that he created for the New York City Opera, that is now owned and refurbished by the San Diego Opera.

[For other reviews of performances by Paolo Gavanelli, see: Gavanelli, Racette, Jovanovich In Rousing “Tabarro” at San Francisco Opera – September 15, 2009 and Gavanelli’s Commanding Presence as San Francisco Opera’s Gianni Schicchi – September 15, 2009 and Partying in L. A.: Machaidze, Gavanelli Romp in All-Star “Turco in Italia” – Los Angeles Opera, February 19, 2011.]

[For my interview with the Sparafucile, Raymond Aceto, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Raymond Aceto, Part I and Rising Stars: An Interview with Raymond Aceto – Part II.]