Review: Quinn Kelsey, Georgia Jarman – Powerful Performances in Lee Blakeley’s New Santa Fe Opera “Rigoletto” – July 4, 2015

Lee Blakeley’s new production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” was unveiled on the Fourth of July, providing another vehicle for the extraordinary talent of Hawaiian Verdi baritone Quinn Kelsey.

Large-voiced, vocally expressive, and with solid command of the high tessitura the role demands, Kelsey now must be regarded as a member of the prestigious inner circle of the world’s great dramatic baritones. [For my reports of other recent Verdi performances by Kelsey, see: Review: Golden Age Verdi Singing for Lyric Opera’s “Il Trovatore” – Chicago, October 27, 2014 performances and Review: San Francisco Opera’s Pérez, Costello, Kelsey Lineup Leads to High Scoring “Traviata” – July 5, 2014.]

[Below: Quinn Kelsey (left) warns Gilda (right) not to leave their apartment; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


The cast that surrounded him was vocally strong, with standout performances from the Gilda of New York soprano Georgia Jarman and an impressive appearance as Sparafucile by Chinese basso Peixin Chen.

California lyric tenor Bruce Sledge, who has taken over the role of the Duke of Mantua for the four scheduled performances in July from Bryan Hymel, met the musical demands of the role, and did not disappoint in the Duke’s big numbers in the final scene – his aria La donna e mobile and the lead part in the famous “Rigoletto Quartet”.

Of special note is that production incorporates the rarely heard courtiers’ chorus Oh qual pensier or l’agita, the stretta after Possente amor mi chiama, the Duke’s cabaletta.

Although the first verse of the cabaletta that follows his third scene aria Parmi veder le lagrime, in decades past an expected cut in “Rigoletto” performances, is now securely returned to performance tradition, the stretta and second verse of the cabaletta still remains a usual cut.

I found Blakeley’s staging of the stretta (which conveys the confusion of the courtiers to the Duke’s response upon learning of Gilda’s abduction) to be logical and dramatically solid. Sledge’s performance of both the cabaletta and the repeat was praiseworthy and advanced the case for the inclusion of the stretta and second verse in “Rigoletto” performances.

[Below: The Duke of Mantua (Bruce Sledge, center) revels in debauchery; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


The other members of the cast, led by New York mezzo-soprano Nicole Piccolomini showed no weak links. The courtier “trio” of Borsa, Marullo and Count Ceprano were respectively Ohio tenor Adrian Kramer, Pennsylvania baritone Jarrett Ott, and Ohio bass-baritone Calvin Griffin.

Robert Pomakov was the Count Monterone, New Jersey mezzo-soprano Anne Marie Stanley was the chaperone Giovanna, California mezzo-soprano Shabnam Kalbasi was Countess Ceprano, Canadian soprano Andrea Nuñez was Monterone’s daughter, and Texas baritone Michael Adams was a Court Usher.

[Below: The Count Monterone (Robert Pomakov, center right in red trousers, is shocked at the sight of his debauched daughter (Andrea Nuñez, lying on floor); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, under the taut and expressive conducting of Italian conductor Jader Bignamini, added even more luster to a fine performance. Chorus Master Susanne Sheston presided over the lively courtier choruses of the opera’s first and third scenes.

The Premise of the New Production

The new production is set in the early 1850s, the time of “Rigoletto’s” premiere. Conceptualized by English director Lee Blakeley, the costume schemes and set architecture are realized by Blakeley’s frequent collaborator, the British scenic designer Adrian Linford.

Blakeley intends the production to convey the schizophrenic mid-19th century political situation on the Italian peninsula.

The forces of reaction had been shocked by the Revolutions of 1848 throughout Europe. Those forces succeeded for a while in shoring up corrupt Italian principalities opposed to the idea (which Verdi promoted) of a unified Italy.

Blakeley’s Mantua is not a Renaissance duchy, but a corrupt and repressive mid-19th century principality, eager to stifle and eliminate all the nationalistic forces that led to the Risorgimento.

[Below: the Duke of Mantua (Bruce Sledge, center) takes a personal interest in the duchy’s affairs; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


[I offer a parenthetical note, which I think reinforces Blakeley’s idea on the “illegitimacy” of the small Italian principalities. The reason why the censors who had held up approving Verdi’s opera, finally allowed “Rigoletto” to be set in the Duchy of Mantua, after rejecting many other proposed sovereignties, was that there was no living descendent of the Gonzagas, the former ruling family of Mantua.]

Shining a Light on “Rigoletto’s” Darkness

Those who think that because “Rigoletto” is filled with beautiful music, that sets and costumes should be beautiful as well, should reflect on how dark the opera really is.

A duke debauches Monterone’s daughter, and then has Monterone beheaded when he makes a scene about it.

The Duke’s courtiers take it upon themselves to kidnap a young woman, so as to permit the Duke to rape her.

[Below: Gilda (Georgia Jarman, left, standing on staircase) is unaware the duchy’s courtiers have assembled outside to kidnap her; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Another father (Rigoletto) hires an assassin (Sparafucile) to kill the Duke, but the assassin’s sister (Maddalena) convinces the assassin to randomly kill any other person instead, because she finds the Duke sexually attractive. (In Blakeley’s staging, Maddalena is physically involved with Gilda’s murder.)

We are cued by Blakeley’s and Linford’s scenic design to the outrageousness of depraved and dissolute leaders having sovereignty over a population, particularly a population that does not want their “leadership”.

Lee Blakeley: Light and Dark

One of the truly imaginative opera directors of modern times, Blakeley recently staged one of the most light-hearted and zaniest of French comic operas for the Santa Fe company [See Susan Graham’s Star Glows in Offenbach’s Sexy, Witty “Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” – Santa Fe Opera, June 28, 2013] and staged as well Verdi’s great comic opera for Los Angeles [A Lovable “Falstaff”: Roberto Frontali Brilliant in Lee Blakeley’s Enchanting New Production – Los Angeles Opera, November 9, 2013.]

Yet, Blakeley has a keen sense of how to present the human condition, particularly the effects of poverty, as in his landmark first effort for this company, Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” [See Kaduce’s Incandescent Cio Cio San, Jovanovich’s Injudicious Pinkerton, Emblazon Blakeley’s “Butterfly” – Santa Fe Opera, July 16, 2010 (whose ideas will infuse his production of “Butterfly” for the Los Angeles Opera in March 2016)].

[Below: the Duke of Mantua (Bruce Sledge, above center right, in red shirt) is, that evening, in a liaison with Maddalena (Nicole Piccolomini, above center left) observed by Rigoletto (Quinn Kelsey, far left) and Gilda (Georgia Jarman, second from left), all of whom express their individual emotions through the “Rigoletto” Quartet; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


If the Duke of Mantua’s court appears surreal, Sparafucile’s seamy inn seems based on the real world.

Blakeley is able to project society’s seedier environments, in ways that seem based in reality even in works of fantasy [See my comments at Review: “Sweeney Todd” at Houston Grand Opera: Nathan Gunn, Director Lee Blakeley Make a Compelling Case for Sondheim as Opera, April 24, 2015.]


I enthusiastically recommend the new “Rigoletto” both for the veteran opera goer and to persons new to opera because of the performances of Quinn Kelsey and Georgia Jarman and the first rate cast with whom they work.

I recommend Lee Blakeley’s thought-provoking new staging of the opera, that engenders new insights into a familiar story.

See also: Rising Stars: An Interview With Quinn Kelsey.