Rigoletto Opens the Door to an Exciting Season in Pittsburgh

If the Pittsburgh Opera is doing anything right—and they are doing many, many things right—it is continuing to cast baritone Mark Delavan in its main-stage productions.  I last heard Mr. Delavan in his chilling portrayal of Scarpia in last season’s stoic production of Tosca.  In my review, I described Mr. Delavan as performing with a show-stealing transcendence.  While the role of Verdi’s hunchbacked and superstitious buffoon Rigoletto does not offer quite the same opportunity to excel in this way, I was nonetheless equally captivated by Mr. Delavan’s performance and the size and power of his instrument.  Following his aria in act two, Cortigiani, vil razza dannata, the audience erupted into thunderous applause; the most significant mid-performance reaction of the evening.  That said, Mr. Delavan was not without fair competition.

Rigoletto (Mark Delavan) discovers that his daughter Gilda (Lyubov Petrova) bears the brunt of his vendetta against the Duke of Mantua.
Rigoletto (Mark Delavan) discovers that his daughter Gilda (Lyubov Petrova) bears the brunt of his vendetta against the Duke of Mantua.

In a magnificent portrayal of Rigoletto’s ill-fated daughter, Gilda, Lyubov Petrova provided a near perfect compliment to Mr. Delavan’s strong voice and skilled acting.  Ms. Petrova is also no stranger to the Pittsburgh Opera’s stage when she isn’t singing at the Met, and let’s hope it stays that way!  If the hearty round of applause that followed her lovesick swooning in Gualtier Maldè!… Caro nome was any indication, I am sure we will be hearing her beautiful and expressive soprano again soon.

Tenor Michael Wade Lee made a reasonably strong debut with the Pittsburgh Opera as the lustful Duke of Mantua.  While I enjoyed Mr. Lee’s acting ability, his voice sounded tired and I admit I felt my knuckles tighten more than once during particularly treacherous a cappella passages, during which Mr. Lee’s sense of pitch seemed to fall between the lines.  The most alarming moment was during the duet between the Duke and Gilda as they professed their mutual love.  The duet, of course, is a musical analogy to sex, which did illicit a few chuckles from the audience.  Unfortunately, I felt myself ready to flinch as I heard the pitch waver and anticipated the orchestra colliding with the singers head-on as they prepared to reenter.  That said, Ms. Petrova and Mr. Lee did seem to emerge from the fog and were rejoined by the band without the need to adjust; no more than a minor fender-bender.  In the crowd pleasing aria la donna è mobile, Mr. Lee sang well, but at the top of his range his voice seemed small and in danger of fading during the comical sustain.  While I did feel that Mr. Lee’s performance was decent over all, it is disappointing to note that many opera-goers likely applaud for the most familiar music, rather than the best performance.

Rigoletto (Mark Delavan) ridicules Count Ceprano (Adam Fry) after it's discovered that the Duke has been romancing Countess Ceprano.
Rigoletto (Mark Delavan) ridicules Count Ceprano (Adam Fry) after it’s discovered that the Duke has been romancing Countess Ceprano.

Of course, poor Rigoletto would not be quite so unlucky without having enlisted the services of the brutal assassin, Sparafucile, who was portrayed with effective chilliness by bass Raymond Aceto.  I was a bit put off by Sparafucile’s initial entrance in act one, as he appeared out of the shadows wrapped in a shroud-like cape, which brought to mind images of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, rather than Verdi’s professional assassin.  There is, indeed, comedy peppered throughout the ultimately tragic tale of Rigoletto, but I found myself wishing Sparafucile was a bit scarier.  Despite my opinion, Mr. Aceto sang confidently and with an excellent basso.  Aceto was joined in act three by first year Resident Artist Samantha Korbey as Sparafucile’s “black widow” sister, Maddalena, who assists him in luring men to their deaths.  Ms. Korbey was well cast, though during the ensemble numbers she was all but inaudible; both a danger of the contralto range and, perhaps the continuing development of her voice.  During those moments she was able to cut through it was clear that she possesses a fantastic instrument, and I look forward to hearing more of her.

I was glad to see not only other current Resident Artists in nearly all of the supporting roles, but recent alumnus Adam Fry as the jealous Count Ceprano.

Rigoletto (Mark Delavan) declares that he’ll pursue a “tremendous vendetta” on the Duke of Mantua for ravaging his daughter.
Rigoletto (Mark Delavan) declares that he’ll pursue a “tremendous vendetta” on the Duke of Mantua for ravaging his daughter.

Maestro Antony Walker once again led his orchestra with a strong resolve and dutiful musicality, despite some wobbles of intonation in many of the exposed brass sections.  As usual, his sensitive direction was a crucial pillar to the production, and filled the hall with an excellent balance.

John Michael Deegan and Sarah J. Conly’s hefty sets would have made Palladio proud, and provided a good monochromatic contrast to Susan Memmot Allred’s vibrant period costuming.  I was most impressed with the intelligent subtlety of Andrew David Ostrowski’s lighting.  Of particular note was Gilda’s entrance in act one, as she threw open the door to her chamber, casting a sharp silhouette on the far wall, encapsulated by a halo of warm light, which played against the cold blue of the surrounding garden.  By virtue of the lighting alone I was transported to Rigoletto’s garden, and even felt a chill as I imagined how cozy the upper rooms of the house must be.  Linda Brovsky’s staging was in line with the very traditional aesthetic throughout.  This strong combination of elements made for a pure and classical setting and made for a fine evening and a fine opening to this opera season in Pittsburgh!

Photos by David Bachman

Pittsburgh Opera’s Rigoletto runs until October 14, 2012. For more info: www.PittsburghOpera.org