Opera News Online
NEW YORK CITY — Rigoletto, The Metropolitan Opera, 1/24/09
JOHN W. FREEMAN
The Met season’s first Rigoletto, on January 24, offered enough elements of change (three company debuts, four Met role debuts) to suggest the possibility of a fresh approach. What emerged instead was a routine performance, respectable but undistinguished from any point of view, spotty in characterization and in musical coordination. Its lack of polish could perhaps be attributed to unfamiliarity with the production, and to premiere and debut jitters. The new Italian conductor from Brescia, Riccardo Frizza, chose racy Rossinian tempos in the first two acts, keeping the orchestra on its toes but repeatedly tripping the chorus and soloists. In Act III, which he drove at a more customary pace, problems took the form of out-of-tune patches from the three principals.
Roman baritone Roberto Frontali, a Met artist since 1992, gave the title role a thoughtful reading, neither big nor rich in tone but meaningfully pointed in delivering the text. While avoiding overstatement, he made one feel the inner motor of Rigoletto’s dread over Monterone’s curse running though every scene. Relying more on pathos than on melodramatics, he reached his finest moment in the “Cortigiani!” monologue of Act II. Giuseppe Filianoti, the Calabrian tenor fired in December from La Scala’s opening-night Don Carlo, used his lyric voice — a bright, edgy instrument with implicit but risky spinto aspirations — to bring brazen charm to the Duke of Mantua. In beguiling Gilda, then mourning her loss in Act II, he showed a more expressive side but also a certain thinness of tone, which later made “La donna è mobile” spirited but effortful.
The long era of chirpy, lyric-coloratura Gildas may have seemed a dimming memory in recent decades, but they’re back, as Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak showed in this cast. Steady and clear in sound, poised in technique, she made an innocent, vulnerable girl, with little hint of nascent sensuality in Act I, or of darkening self-awareness and rising intensity in the scenes that followed. The result was a bland, static portrayal, though Kurzak had the brightness of sound to carry her lines over the Act III storm. Oddly, it took the secondary characters to inject some dramatic verisimilitude into the performance. In her Met debut, Grazia Doronzio as Countess Ceprano had only a few well-chosen words to show her potential, but she used them to squelch the Duke’s advances. Another newcomer, Hungarian mezzo Viktoria Vizin, seized her chance to play a vivid Maddalena — forthright without exaggeration, vital and earthy. Vizin’s heavy petting with Filianoti in the final scene appeared the most carefully rehearsed yet spontaneous stage business of the evening, while her throaty singing combined the suggestive with the carefree. She also looked a credible sister to the tall, lanky Sparafucile of Mikhail Petrenko, whose touches of quasi-cavalier affectation added depth to this seedy character.
Otto Schenk’s twenty-year-old production — traditional to the core, now in the hands of director Sharon Thomas — creates as many problems as it solves. Zack Brown’s set works for the Duke’s seduction scene with Gilda, where the garden of Rigoletto’s house is walled off from the main arena. In the ballroom-sized hall of the Duke’s palace, on the other hand, Rigoletto’s tête-à–tête with Gilda put him at center stage, with her far off to one side. Both confided in the audience — a phenomenon much in evidence during the evening. Only at the reprise of “Piangi, fanciulla” did the badly shaken, caring father approach to comfort his ravished daughter. The inn scene, on the other hand, was so claustrophobic that the two of them practically bumped heads with the pair they came to spy on. In general, this Rigoletto felt as familiar as a well-worn armchair — not the hot seat of Verdi’s tight, shocking drama, but a comfortable place to reread the old story.