Rigoletto - finalmente!

Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto
Starring Zeljko Lucic, Diana Damrau, Giuseppe Filianoti, Stefan Kocan, Fabio Luisi cond.
April 26, 2011

When the curtain fell on Rigoletto tonight, the Met crowd roared in approval. I have no idea whether this is true, but my feeling is that the reason there was such a roar of approval was that after years of perfectly serviceable but vocally unmemorable Rigolettos like Leo Nucci or Juan Pons (and some other mediocre baritones thrown into the lot) we finally had a "real" hunchback jester. Lucic's voice has a great deal of natural, unforced beauty. There is no "dark and bark" for him -- the sound just seems to emanate from him naturally. It's not a lyric baritone voice either -- it has the heft, body, and volume for Verdi's cruelly challenging vocal writing. He was able to thunder in "Cortigiani" and yet sing a beautiful legato line in his duets with Gilda. He absolutely blew "Piangi, fanciulla, piangi" out of the park.

Rigoletto happens to be one of my favorite operas, maybe because of my dad. My father's not hunchbacked, nor would he ever put a hit out on anyone, but the sharp tongue, the defiance, and the fierce devotion to his loved ones, that's my dad. I absolutely despise the fact that barking and mugging are so typical nowadays for Rigoletto. The bug-eyes, the snarling, the sobbing/laughing, walking with a severe hunchback. Watch various Leo Nucci videos of Rigoletto from the recent years to see what I'm talking about. Lucic has been careful to avoid the "Rigoletto"-isms. Lucic mostly avoids any of this and concentrates instead on singing. I think he went a little too far in making this Rigoletto an aural experience. He often stood completely upright as he stood downstage center to sing, and I was thinking that a slight hunch of the shoulders might have had more dramatic effect. Still, what a wonderful change to have this role actually sung, and he sang with so much feeling that I could not help but feel his pain.

One thing that was refreshing and realistic was that his interactions with his daughter didn't have the cloying "I'm a middle-aged soprano sitting on a middle-aged baritones lap because that's just what Gildas do." They are a father-daughter who have lived together for a long time and so it's natural that much of their affection would be implied rather than in-your-face. More problematic was that Damrau and the Duke (Filianoti) had no chemistry to speak of. Did they ever look at each other? 

Diana Damrau as Gilda also had a huge success with this role. I mentioned in my review of the Dresden dvd that Damrau is not a typical Gilda -- she's too confident, too mature, to really play the part of the sweet, sheltered convent girl convincingly. But tonight she dialed down a lot of the brassy sexuality of the Dresden video, and instead made Gilda a curious, passionate young woman.I never noticed how persistent Gilda is about asking for her family history until I saw Damrau and Lucic tonight. Her voice has grown in size and color since she had the baby -- it is now a very large lyric soprano voice that can easily fill the barn. Her trill is weak, but vocally she has to be one of the most secure singers onstage today. Her "Caro nome" had a softness and dreaminess that I don't recall hearing before. She went for the optional E-flat at the end of "Si vendetta" and she was a shade flat, but it's nice to see sopranos taking risks. Bravo to both father and daughter. 

This is Damrau's "Caro nome" from a few years ago. If you listen to her, you'll hear that the glassy hardness is gone. There's only one more Damrau Gilda this season - GO!

Here are some clips of Lucic and Damrau in the Dresden video:


I wish I could say the same about Giuseppe Filianoti. I sincerely hope he was sick tonight, and thus not sounding his best, because if this is the best he can sound then ... The voice has become hard and metallic, and he cannot negotiate any notes around the passagio or above the staff with ease, not even the cadenza at the end of "Parmi veder le lagrime." I thought he might actually choke during "Possente amor." Many of his notes have a strangulated sound to them that sounds like late-in-the-day Martinelli. The high B climax to "La Donna e mobile" was unfortunate. He's certainly handsome, and looks like he could fit in with The Tudors or Borgias cast.  But he sounds awful. Or sounded awful last night.

Here are some clips singing the Duke in earlier productions. Voice has always been a bit metallic, but nothing like the strangulated, struggling tenor I heard tonight.

I thought Fabio Luisi did an excellent job making the prelude sound ominous and he accompanied the duets and arias with Gilda with lovely, soft soaring orchestration. I thought though that sometimes he and the singers were not well-coordinated in the ensembles. I could hear some miscues in "Bella figlia dell' amore." Maybe some more rehearsal was needed? Some of the smaller roles were sung well -- Stefan Kocan as Sparafucile, Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Maddelena.

As for the production, it premiered in 1989, and is looking its age. The whole thing has a careworn, "this needs a trip to the paintshop" feel. Zack Brown's sets for Rigoletto's house and the inn actually have a nice look to them -- it would make sense that Rigoletto would live in a small house, or that the Duke would frequent seedy taverns. Both the prologue and Act Two are set in some kind of party at the Duke's palace. But it makes no sense to set the prologue and the Duke's palace in the same set, especially since there are several references to being inside in Act Two. The libretto says, "Living room inside the ducal palace. There are two side doors. At the sides hung portraits of the Duke and Duchess. There is a chair at a table covered with velvet." There's another instance in Act Two when the Duke's wife asks to see him and he blows her off. This would make much more sense in an interior setting than an outside garden party.

Then I read that for some reason the Act Two set was dropped this year. I have no idea why. Otto Schenk was the original director but I doubt nowadays much is going on in rehearsals other than "chorus enters stage left, Rigoletto, enter stage right." I heard this Rigoletto is getting its "farewell tour" this season. Hopefully the next Rigoletto will be slightly more dynamic.

Here is a picture of the Act Two set that was not used for this revival:

More pictures from the production:

But at the end of the day, people want voices for Rigoletto, and that was what we got tonight.

And now let me end on another note: Damrau is yet another in a long line of absolutely transcendent German-born Gildas. I'll just let the singing "sing" for itself. Hard to believe Berger was 50 when she made this recording! She sounds 30 years younger. Gueden's voice is sweet and dreamy, but enough of an edge to it to avoid sounding saccharine. And Freida Hempel's recording has very primitive sound but you can hear what a wonderful trill she has -- she trills all the way up to high E. Rothenberger is a singer who is criminally underrated by opera buffs. What a beautiful voice! Try to ignore the weird camera angles for that video.


 Erna Berger

Frieda Hempel:

Hilde Gueden:

Anneliese Rothenberger:


  1. They had to use the "touring" set for the "Rigoletto" because they needed extra storage space backstage for the "Walkure" machine. The "Tosca" set is also rather cumbersome. It is interesting that there were criticisms of how heavy and overbuilt the Zeffirelli and Schenk/Schneider-Siemmsen productions were. Yet the Zimmerman "Lucia" requires 40 minute intermissions to strike and rebuild the sets. That never happened with the Zeffirelli shows. They have a lot of cloth backdrops.

  2. The new Rigoletto is going to be directed by Luc Bondy (!). It's a co-production with the Wiener Festwochen; I'm going to the opening night on May 29. How exactly they're going to design a set that works for the Theater an der Wien (seating capacity 1,000) and the Met is unclear to me, but they did it with From the House of the Dead (which didn't have much of a set, really...).

  3. I always liked Rothenberger (and back in the LP days, you could find her recordings on bargain labels, so I heard a lot of them), although this isn't the best singing of hers. One of my college German teachers from Austria disliked Rothenberger because of her many overly-mannered television appearances, she evidently couldn't sing anything without horrible facial expressions and strange body movements.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

COVIDammerung -- The End of the World in Met Streams

Comparing Nutcrackers Across the Pond

Angela Meade's Anna