The neon is fading from Rat Pack “Rigoletto,” but Met’s stellar cast plumbs the human tragedy

Wed Feb 13, 2019 at 1:52 pm
Nadine Sierra and Roberto Frontali in Verdi's "Rigoletto" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

Nadine Sierra and Roberto Frontali in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

There’s no doubting that Michael Mayer’s flashing neon production of Rigoletto is effective entertainment: his cheeky, Vegas-inspired take on Verdi’s tragic drama is a playful twist, and on its best nights it has brought a fresh perspective to one of the most familiar pieces in the operatic repertoire.

Perhaps the novelty is wearing off, or perhaps the cast that opened the Metropolitan Opera’s revival on Tuesday night simply weren’t inclined to play along. Together they crafted a dark, compelling rendition of the story that made Mayer’s pole dancers and lines of cocaine feel incongruously glib.

Roberto Frontali doesn’t own the sort of rich baritone you’d usually want for the title role. He shows surprising ring at the top, and his tone is generally firm, but he lacks the round, full sound the fill out the lyrical vocal writing. 

Frontali more than compensates with stunning depth of character: it was clear that his love for his daughter Gilda was the motivating force in his life, and that emotion fueled his singing. “Cortigiani,” his scathing aria in Act II, was taken at a breakneck pace, and in Frontali’s reading it was a thrilling journey from an explosion of rage to desperate pleading.

Nadine Sierra’s interpretation of Gilda gets stronger every time she returns to the role. Her singing on Tuesday was exemplary, luxuriating in her warm, lemony tone and showing off gauzy pianissimos at her top. Her “Caro nome” was a spectacular, sensual reading, becoming a coy duet with the orchestra as she settled into a carefree attitude. The showy, high-climbing cadenza at the end of the aria might have been a little much, but she pulled it off with style. As the innocent victim of the story, Gilda is the hardest character to square with Mayer’s tongue-in-cheek twists, yet Sierra managed to find some lovely human moments, especially in her tender duets with her father.

Vittorio Grigolo’s shining tenor beamed all night in his appearance as the Duke of Mantua, turning to liquid gold in a warm rendition of “Parmi veder le lagrime,” the tender aria at the top of Act II. This performance struck a different note from many of Grigolo’s other Met outings: his energy level was the same—there’s no pulling back on the throttle with this singer—but he usually plays his characters with a kind of manic earnestness. Here he brought that same intensity to a duplicitous, violent, thoroughly repulsive figure, and the result was truly disturbing—a macho goon with no moral restraint or fear of consequences. The lilting “La donna è mobile” had a sociopathic streak running through it.

Štefan Kocán made for a brooding, shady Sparafucile, Rigoletto’s hitman, offering a hazy bass but sounding weak on his bottom notes. Ramon Zaharia impressed in her company debut as Maddalena, showing a rich, dark sound more on the contralto side of the mezzo-soprano range.

Scott Scully was a smarmy, sycophantic Borsa, and Jeongcheol Cha brought swagger and an oaky barrel of a voice as Marullo. The imposing, cavernous bass that Robert Pomakov displayed as Monterone was ideal for booming out proclamations of doom. Jennifer Roderer’s dark mezzo-soprano sounded a little weary in the role of Giovanna, Gilda’s nurse.

It was an up-and down night for Nicola Luisotti in the pit: some raggedness in the orchestra early on cleared up and their sound thereafter was bright. Yet he made a number of odd tempo choices, such as that hell-for-leather “Cortigiani” mentioned above, and compensated for them with extra dynamic punctuation. The men of the Met chorus, at least, were luminous throughout Tuesday’s performance.

Rigoletto runs through May 10 at the Metropolitan Opera. Beginning April 26, George Gagnidze takes over the title role, with Rosa Feola as Gilda and Dimitry Ivashchenko as Sparafucile. Francesco Demuro, Matthew Polenzani, and Stephen Costello share the role of the Duke beginning March 6.

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