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Quinn Kelsey [Photo © Todd Rosenberg]
28 Oct 2017

Rigoletto at Lyric Opera of Chicago

If a credible portrayal of the title character in Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto is vital to any performance, the success of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current, exciting production hinges very much on the memorable court jester and father sung by baritone Quinn Kelsey.

Rigoletto at Lyric Opera of Chicago

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: Quinn Kelsey [Photo © Todd Rosenberg]


Notable performances are also given by Matthew Polenzani as the Duke of Mantua and by Rosa Feola as Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda. The siblings Maddalena and Sparafucile are portrayed by Zanda Švēde and Alexander Tsymbalyuk. Count Monterone, Borsa, Count and Countess Ceprano, Marullo, Giovanna, and a page are sung by Todd Thomas, Mario Rojas, Alan Higgs, Whitney Morrison, Takaoki Onishi, Lauren Decker, and Diana Newman. Debut performances at Lyric Opera of Chicago are being given by Mmes. Feola, Švēde, and Morrison as well as by Messrs. Tsymbalyuk, Rojas, and Higgs. The Lyric Opera Orchestra is conducted by Marco Armiliato, and the Chorus Master is Michael Black. The production is owned by San Francisco Opera and is given under the direction of E. Loren Meeker.

During the orchestral prelude the dramatic tensions in Verdi’s score are revealed by the set design and the positioning of characters. A Renaissance courtyard is suggested by buildings framing either side of the stage. Doorways open out onto the courtyard - which will also function as the interior space of the Duke’s residence - allowing for fluid movements in multiple scenes. As the brass sound ominously, Mr. Kelsey’s Rigoletto emerges from a backdrop reddish glow surrounded by both his professional and domestic environments. While Rigoletto stares blankly forward, the audience is permitted a brief view of the Duke positioned behind Rigoletto with two women of the court in ornate costume. Gradually the light fades on the latter three characters, and the jester dons his fool’s costume and cap. At the conclusion of the prelude, courtiers stream out of the lateral doorways, a backdrop of arches descends, and the lively atmosphere of the Duke’s immoral residence prevails now as an interior.

The brief, first scene of Act One showcasing the Duke’s personality is staged with rapid movement. Interchanges with the courtiers concerning future conquests lead to the Duke’s aria, “Questa o quella” [“This woman or that one”]. Mr. Polenzani sings this aria with emphasis on his character’s determination, ending verses with frequent sustained, top notes; here a greater application of legato could bind the individual lines into an even more credible image. While the Duke searches for the Countess Ceprano, Rigoletto weaves about athletically and comments on the atmosphere of debauchery. Mr. Kelsey’s striking facial expressions and kinetic postures speak for a complete involvement in the role of jester. Kelsey’s voice rises in defiance when threatened by Ceprano, and he declares himself untouchable as “del Duca un protetto” (“a favorite of the Duke”). Once the courtiers conspire with Ceprano to exact revenge on the fool, Count Monterone enters demanding an audience. Mr. Thomas is appropriately stentorian as the nobleman seeking justice for a father’s grief. When Monterone is detained and led away from the court, Polenzani and Kelsey diverge in their reactions, the Duke showing indifference to the nobleman’s curse while the jester is now serious and shaken.

The transition to Rigoletto’s conversation with an assassin at the start of the following scene shows an effective maneuver of the stage. By means of corresponding lighting and blocking, the Duke’s court becomes a dim deserted street with a single, cloaked figure positioned in a doorway. As Rigoletto proceeds homeward, he is lost in thought, still musing on the powerful curse of Monterone. During his change out of jester’s clothing, performed significantly away from the setting of home, the assassin begins a conversation while elaborating on his murderous offer. Mr. Tsymbalyuk’s vibrant and even vocal delivery in describing his practice with Maddalena plants an unforgettable seed in Rigoletto’s complex of thoughts, as if invigorating Kelsey’s cry in his sustained note on “Quel vecchio maledivami!” (“The old man cursed me!”). While shrugging off such concerns from his public life at the court, Rigoletto opens the gate to his private sphere with the baritone’s voice here swelling defiantly to insist “Ah no, è follia!” Rigoletto’s domestic scene with his daughter Gilda shows Kelsey blending singing and acting in a convincing display of protective concern. Ms. Feola’s light voice seems at first especially comfortable in the middle range while she projects in her character both innocence and anticipation. During the course of the touching duet with her father the soprano shows a wider range and greater emotional color. Kelsey stands behind Gilda as a shield while softening top notes to emphasize his paternal affection. Feola’s understated approach gains intensity until the moment of Rigoletto’s departure, nearly coinciding with the arrival of the Duke. In the subsequent duet both singers embellish their lines to indicate a growing emotional attachment. Feola’s expressive delivery of “miei vergini sogni” captures the developing love which has invaded her “maiden dreams,” just as Polenzani intones “fama e gloria” as worthless attributes compared to this new love. At the sounds of Ceprano and other courtiers arriving outside for the planned abduction, the Duke takes leave preparing for lyrical and dramatic highlights that bring the act to a close. First, Gilda’s musing on the alleged name of the Duke in “Caro nome” (“Beloved name”) furnishes the soprano great opportunity for vocal and dramatic display. Feola uses aspirated notes at the start to inject a tone of anticipation into her admission of the quickened pulse of her heart (“festi primo palpitar”). Feola binds phrases gracefully and shows admirable breath control while acting the part of infatuated maiden. Trills are suggested, and top notes are sung cautiously, while phrases are sufficiently varied to create a convincing image. Perhaps the most striking moment in the ensuing drama begins after Rigoletto’s return in the darkness. The courtiers reveal a plan to abduct the wife of Ceprano while concealing their actual goal. Rigoletto is blindfolded and dons a mask so that he assists by holding a ladder to permit access unknowingly to his own home. Only Gilda’s belated cries alert the jester to his mistaken collusion. Kelsey’s portrayal of Rigoletto’s participation is remarkable primarily because of the silently delivered bodily movements and poses. His assumption of the character’s physical impairment is ever-present while he holds the ladder, yet an exaggerated grin of mistaken mischief remains visible beneath the mask. For several heartbreaking moments Kelsey stands alone, gripping the ladder in self-satisfaction, until the offstage cries of his daughter shatter the jester’s domestic world forever.

At the start of Act Two the Duke’s aria enumerating conflicting emotions on loss and recovery is given every possible shade of nuance by Polenzani. His gentle piano notes and introduction of wistful phrasing diminuendo characterize what the Duke feels he no longer possesses. Only after the conspirators reveal their prey does the Duke’s personality revert to the triumph of conquest, a tone invested with lively, vocal decoration in Polenzani’s reprise. The jester’s subsequent appeal to the courtiers that his daughter be released, “Cortigiani,” counts as one of the great baritone solo arias composed by Verdi. Kelsey sings this piece as an anguished lament tinged with desperation when he confronts the falsely trusted Marullo for information on Gilda. Stage lighting in the final moments of this aria emphasizes Rigoletto’s isolation from the courtiers, standing in dim recess, while Kelsey’s voice blooms with emotion on the last “Signori … pietate!” (“My lords … have pity!”). Once Gilda is returned to her father, she confesses the details of her growing infatuation with the nobleman. Tempos in “Tutte le feste” (“On all the holy days”) are taken slowly to encourage Feola’s delineation of a gradual, inescapable affection. In the concluding duet between father and child Kelsey and Feola sing truly as equal voices, the father swearing revenge, while Gilda begs that the Duke be forgiven. The final chilling top note is indeed shared dramatically, yet Kelsey’s ominous “Vendetta di quest’ anima” (“Revenge from my heart”) resounds even longer at the close.

The ensemble pieces of Act Three show in this production Rigoletto’s humble dwelling transformed on stage into the space for Sparafucile’s lair. Gilda and Rigoletto remain outside while the Duke enters and demonstrates, in his approach to Maddalena, the betrayal of Gilda’s innocent love. Polenzani’s performance of “La donna è mobile” (“Women are fickle”) captures the Duke’s swagger ideally, line and top notes securely in place, and with volume modulated throughout the piece to excellent effect. The following quartet (“Bella figlia dell’ amore” [“Fair daughter of love”]) between the pairs outside and inside of Sparfucile’s “rustica osteria” depends, as here, on a mastery of balance among the four singers. Ms. Švēde’s lush and deep repeat of “Ah! Rido ben di core” (“That really makes me laugh”) contrasts notably with Feola’s arching line recognizing betrayal. Gilda’s ultimate decision to sacrifice herself by taking the place of the Duke in her father’s murderous pact with Sparafucile becomes here an inevitable consequence of Rigoletto’s actions and the “maledizione.” (“curse”). Gilda’s love and innocence will remain, at best, as a memory.

Salvatore Calomino

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