Roughly the size of the opera houses Verdi knew in cities all over Italy in his day, the gilded Colonial Theater in Pittsfield allows singers to be able to project a dramatic role over an orchestra and to make their words coherent to the listener. To hear and see Verdi’s Rigoletto there constitutes a rare treat (so many opera houses in America—and especially the most famous—are far too big for either the singers’ long-term health or the audience’s satisfaction. And when the musical qualities of the performance rise to the Berkshire Opera Festival’s level of vocal brilliance, dramatic musicianship, and orchestral strength, one can only rejoice.
The three-year-old Festival already has a promising track record; enthusiastic reviews had induced me to see last year’s imaginative Ariadne auf Naxos, so I arrived Saturday night with great expectations for Rigoletto.
Verdi’s opera is based on a play by Victor Hugo, Le Roi s’amuse (“The King Amuses Himself”). Hugo’s king is François I (1494-1547), whose court jester Triboulet is the model for the character of Rigoletto. Verdi always had to contend with governmental censorship in his choice of plots; in the case of Rigoletto, the censors objected to the licentious immorality of a king, and—even worse—of a plot to murder a king, however thoroughly justified. As he did in other cases, Verdi kept the story but lowered the rank of the problematic monarch to that of a duke, a Duke of Mantua in the late 16th century, whose court jester became Rigoletto. (To this day, there is a 16th-century building in Mantua visible from the ducal palace which the guidebooks identify as the “casa di Rigoletto”!)
Whether the opening scene at court is that of a king or a duke, we understand that this is a place of brilliance and luxury, yet also of corruption. For the Berkshire production, the scenic design by Stephen Dobay and the costume designs by Charles Caine gave us a Renaissance picture, but a decidedly monochromatic one. The stage was an open box painted in gray. (Such furniture as is visible any time in the opera is painted black.) Two doorways of different size appeared in the rear left and right.
Costumes were similarly monochromatic. The courtiers wore simple black pants and shirts. The Duke’s also dressed in black, but elaborate ruffles differentiated him. Even Rigoletto’s motley jester’s outfit was limited to shades of black, gray, and white. The women appeared in tunics of white. The restricted color scheme presaged noir violence.
It became all the more striking when other colors appeared. Outside the doors, blue light suggested the open air at daytime. A bright gold line cast by a thin light down the middle of the back wall and across the floor contrasted rooms inside the palace or between inside and outside in the second scene and the last act. And the single most dramatic appearance of color came in the end of Act II, when Rigoletto is consoling Gilda after the Duke rapes her: the entire scene gradually flooded with red light, suggesting blood, rage, and thirst for revenge.
The stark simplicity of stage picture—its openness and monochromatic look—echoed, too, in the stage movement of the soloists and chorus, with, to some degree, suppressed and stylized motion. The Duke’s unbridled lust, though, always seemed to be driving him. Rigoletto became increasingly physical as he first planed and then believed that he had realized his revenge for Gilda’s shame. But most other actions were more suggested than carried out in “realistic” gestures. Verdi’s music, at every point, tightened the screws effectively.
One could hardly ask for more suitable singers for each of these roles. From his opening “Questa o quella,” Jonathan Tetelman made it clear that the Duke is a light-hearted libertine whose notion of love is that which gives him pleasure at the moment. His attractive features and physique, in addition to his rank and power, left no question as to why he should be a successful seducer, even of a young innocent like Gilda. His passionate duet with Gilda when he presents himself to her as a poor student almost convinced us. And once he found her missing from her home—not yet knowing that the courtiers had carried her off—he projects genuine heartbreak in “Parmi veder le lagrime.” Of course, his most famous aria, “La donna é mobile,” revealed him as a thorough-going a scoundrel.
Gilda (Maria Valdes) was the lovely innocent whose virtue could easily be overcome by the Duke’s wiles. Her first expression of love, “Caro nome,” shimmered with fresh brilliance, contrasting to her devastated tears in explaining to her father what has happened to her. Despite those tears, she still loves him, passionately, as we learned in the famous quartet. Her final moments, firm with courage (foolish though it may be), revealed deep poignance.
The most experienced singer in the opera. John Cheek, gave a stirring account of the two brief appearances as Monterone, imprisoned for his vehement anger over the Duke’s ruination of his daughter. In reaction to the Duke’s mockery, Cheek cursed Rigoletto with powerful vehemence, motivating the entire rest of the opera—as Verdi intended.
The professional assassin Sparafucile (Joseph Barron) suggested his mastery of skullduggery at every appearance, and his sister, the luscious seductress Maddalena (Maya Lahyani) sang with an enticing mezzo that provided an excellent foil to Gilda’s coloratura innocence.
I save the Rigoletto (Sebastian Catana) for last, not only because he has the most demanding role in the opera (indeed, one of the most demanding for high baritones) and the most vocally varied, but also because his reactions motivate everything that happens—even though it leads to tragedy. He began as a simple court fool, who makes a joke out of everything—even the anger of a father whose daughter the Duke has ravished. In the first scene with Gilda, he showed us how utterly crucial her love is to him. Verdi’s music paints this relationship powerfully, but it needs to be sung with firm conviction, as it was here. And that makes possible the emotional highlight of the opera, in Act II, when Rigoletto is seeking his daughter from the courtiers who have abducted her under the misimpression that she is his mistress. He hunts here and there, seeming to be chuckling at their good joke, but finally breaks down and attacks them as a “vile race of courtiers.” At the climax, instead or repeating the first part of the scene (as would have happened in many operas before Verdi and in many passages of his own operas), he comes near collapse and pleads with them to return his daughter. This is one of the great moments in the entire history of opera. Catana’s representation of Rigoletto’s heartbreak moved us deeply, as did his tearful duet with Gilda (the stage flooded with red light). His determination to pursue the Duke’s assassination sets the rest of the opera on track for its poignant and tragic finale.
Everyone in the extended cast, particularly the chorus of courtiers, acted and sang with distinction. The orchestra, conducted by Brian Garman, provided excellent support for the singers, as well as Verdi’s musical sound effects: the dramatic chord of Monterone’s curse, the wailing breeze along the river when Rigoletto thinks he is dragging the body of the Duke to be dumped, and so on. Jonathan Loy’s direction sustained the noir character and suppressed motion that gave striking mood to this strong production.
The run concludes with performances on August 28th and 31st. Tickets HERE.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.