Cher Public

Plus a little jest

Verdi’s Rigoletto returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago on Saturday night in a “new-to-Chicago” production seen previously in San Francisco. It was a rousing performance both musically and dramatically, featuring glorious performances in the three leading roles and potent, portentous playing by the Lyric Opera Orchestra under Marco Armiliato

It is always rewarding to hear a young singer make a successful debut, and last night Italian soprano Rosa Feola stunned the usually staid Lyric audience with her brilliant performance as Gilda. It was a near-perfect assumption of the role, with her meltingly beautiful voice, her charismatic stage presence, and her strong acting skills creating a three-dimensional characterization, unusually subtle and with a huge emotional palette.

The audience simply fell in love with her. Her “Caro nome,” bubbling with youthful excitement about her love for “Gualtier Malde,” besides being magnificently sung with Ms. Feola’s limpid lyric soprano pouring forth fountains of silvery sound, was unusually moving. In the aria, Ms. Feola showed a Gilda not only thrilling to the feeling of first love, but also transitioning from girl to woman and having something of a sensual awakening as well.

She sang throughout without a hint of strain, tossing off high notes with ease and purity of tone. This was a performance that I will long remember, and I certainly think that Rosa Feola has a very bright future ahead of her in the lyric soprano repertoire. Her solo bow at the curtain call drew an ovation larger than I’ve heard at Lyric in years.

A lesser baritone might have been overshadowed by Ms. Feola’s debut, but Quinn Kelsey was superb as Rigoletto. The Hawaiian baritone brought an almost noble quality to the jester, and allowed us to see the depth of his loathing for his job contrasting with the character’s offstage life. Kelsey sang with real elegance and surprising tonal beauty, always avoiding the “snarl and bark,” always playing the emotion through the music.

Both the “Cortigiani” and the thrilling second act duet “Si, vendetta…” were powerfully sung, yet also underpinned with intelligence and grace underneath Rigoletto’s fury. This Rigoletto’s physical deformity was also subtly played. It was a wonderfully human performance.

Also splendid was tenor Matthew Polenzani as the Duke, utilizing his honeyed tenor and elegant phrasing throughout. Polenzani, another singer with solid stage presence and charisma, varied vocal color and use of volume to excellent effect, especially in his “Parmi” aria that begins the second act and, of course, in “La donna e mobile,” a rousing version of what is perhaps Verdi’s most famous melody. In the house, you could almost sense that the audience was dying to sing along. (Thankfully, they did not.)

Understandably, the smaller roles were not up to the standards set by the leading singers. Debuting Ukranian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk didn’t seem quite warmed up for his first act meeting with Rigoletto, the low notes of his final “Sparafucile” lost in the orchestra. But he rallied for a fine performance of the third act, bringing sharp edges to his sound and playing an unusually cruel Sparafucile.

Our Maddalena was Latvian debutante Zanda Svede, a fine actress and an attractive presence, whose voice is one size too small to fill the cavernous Civic Opera House. Todd Thomas was an unfortunate choice for Monterone, virtually voiceless, his grand curse scene coming to no effect at all. As the servant Giovanna, Lauren Decker’s performance mainly consisted of smoothing her apron and adjusting her collar. In contrast, there was a fine bit of Countess Ceprano from the plummy-voiced Whitney Morrison.

The production was mostly successful. Stage Director E. Loren Meeker did a fine job of finding the emotional core of the opera and keeping the atmosphere charged and focused. The set of Michael Yeargan was an effectively claustrophobic blend of tall grey walls and great grey arches flying in and out.

Rigoletto’s abode was all done in red, a welcome contrast to the grey outside, though it seemed that the jester lived in a rather stylish, if sparsely furnished duplex condo. The walls kept our focus on the principals, dressed colorfully and effectively in Constance Hoffman’s rich costumes. Much color was provided by Chris Maravich’s excellent, moody lighting.

Armiliato overcame an early disconnect between pit and singer during “Questa o quella” to provide much excitement a power from the orchestra, keeping the tension in the music at all times. The agitated music underscoring Rigoletto’s “Cortigiani”, depicting the frenzy happening in the jester’s mind, was particularly effective. Michael Black’s men’s chorus sang very well and provided some unusually varied character choices.

At the core, of course, is Verdi’s magnificent score, with one “hit tune” after the other, illuminating the father-daughter relationship that the composer seemed to explore in a number of his operas. And what a pleasure it was to hear this score sung by three superb voices.

  • Thanks very much, Henson. Glad to hear of Kelsey’s success. I’m surprised Polenzani doesn’t sing the Duke more often. And I’m definitely going to keep an eye open for Rosa Feola.

  • Yige Li

    Thank you for the review. I was also in the audience on Saturday and largely agree with you.

    Firstly, I want to echo the praise on Rosa Feola.

    She is no stranger for Chicago audience having appeared with CSO several times, all with Muti conducting. In concert repertoire, though, it’s harder to see (and better not to see too much) personality. Still she was very musical in those. Then, last year she sang Nanetta in “Falstaff”. A small part, and she sang adorably. WFMT (as well as many other stations, but the schedule may be off for one or two weeks) will broadcast the recording on Oct. 21. I’m sure everyone will listen because of the one and only grand maestro, the true king of Verdi conducting :-)

    Still, it’s a complete different level of experience when seeing her in a staged performance. As good as Quinn Kelsey got, Feola still managed to steal the show, at least for me. This singer has everything--voice, technique, style, acting, and personality (the later two not only present in binocular--which will for sure transfer to HD that is certainly important in this age--but also transfer in the large auditorium. The later, for me, is more important for live theater, but is a rarer quality.). Also, she is Italian. The benefit of singing in native tongue was undeniable. On stage, she was the one that combine the words and music best (I read she has done a lot of coaching with Renata Scotto in Rome, which I’m sure helps.). And then, all these elements were held together to create the character. In “Caro nome”, all the technically challenging (or, showy) parts--trills, jumps, scales--were under the frame of larger phrasing presented as expression of feeling. John von Rhein of Chicago Tribune wrote: ‘Never in my now 40 years on the Tribune aisle have I heard Gilda’s touchstone aria “Caro nome” sung more ravishingly, delicately or movingly.’ Writing for the most mainstream paper in Chicago, John von Rhein is somehow like Anthony Tommasini in NYC that I find being too generous from time to time. Well, that’s when they talk in the absolute scale. However, when it is praised and compared in a relative scale with the reference of their lone watching experience, it is worth attention. And Feola’s painting of vocal color in Gilda’s death scene was also memorable. If I must find some fault of her performance, it is during the storm scene. It seems her voice was a LITTLE bit (really just a little bit) on the lighter side. Give her one or two years, it will be perfect then, I’m sure.

    I have included a download link for the radio broadcast in the end of this post, and hope you can enjoy half as what we got live in the theater.

    I have the feeling she could be the next real deal of opera world--a brighter star than Sonya Yoncheva. (I was at Yoncheva’s MET debut as Gilda in 2013. Though thinking she was good, I didn’t get too much excitement as I did for Feola on the past Saturday. BTW, Feola won the 2nd prize of Operalia in 2010, the years that 1st price was awarded to no other than Sonya Yoncheva. However, Feola is 5-year Yoncheva’s junior being only 24 back then. For the final round, Yoncheva sang the Gavotte scene from Massenet’s “Manon”, while Feola sang “E strano…Sempre libera” from “Traviata”--too challenging for that age and size of voice I would imagine. I’m very curious about it. Anyone has video or even audio of Operalia 2010, I will appreciate if you can share.) I think the next 5 years would be crucial to her career. Currently, her light voice still limits her in a relatively small or off-beat repertoire (which I don’t mean being artistically inferior, but certainly less star-making). If her voice can grow a step richer and she manages to pace herself well while developing, I cannot imagine she not becoming a star.

    And here’s her singing “Caro nome” under maestro Muti’s baton several years ago (the audio quality is not so good though):

    According to this interview, she will bring her Gilda to MET very soon. Keep an eye on it!

    As I said I “largely”, not “completely”, agree with the review, the main different impression I got was about Matthew Polenzani’s Duke. In my opinion, he’s the (OK, relatively) weak link of the main trio. True that he’s a nice and elegant singer. And I generally like him. But as a character, the temperament was missing. He looks and sounds more like Gualtier Maldè disguised as Duke of Mantua than Duke of Mantua disguised as Gualtier Maldè. Certainly, Gild fell in love for him. But how he could attract Maddalena, I don’t understand.

    Here’s the broadcast from Saturday. The link will be valid for 1 week.

    • grimoaldo2

      Thanks to Henson for the review and to Yige for the link, which I shall listen to with great interest.

      • grimoaldo2

        Wow, Yige has even included a PDF of the programme for the performance. Such service!

        • grimoaldo2

          This is indeed a terrific performance,have heard to the end of the second scene so far, the three leads well nigh perfect, so much beautiful singing, and you can hear the orchestra so clearly, every note of the orchestration in this towering masterpiece seems to me the masterstroke of a genius, excellent sound,what a treat, and no annoying cuts in the Gilda/ Rigoletto and Gilda/Duca duets either.

          • grimoaldo2

            No repeat of Duca’s cabaletta though, that’s a pity

            • grimoaldo2

              OMG one of the great “Si vendetta” duets of all time.

            • Camille

              Really? Oh thanks for the tip!! I’ll be listening out for it.

            • grimoaldo2

              A “Rigoletto” for the ages!
              I have been listening to this opera my whole life, my parents had LP’s of four operas, Rigoletto, La Traviata, the Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville (well, five if you count Show Boat) which i listened to over and over from the age of about six, and the one which still strikes me like a lightning bolt with astonishment at its stunning creativity and freshness is Rigoletto, in a good performance like this.
              Such a heartbreaking, pitiful, bleak drama, the best illustration I know in any medium of Aristotle’s dictum that tragedy should arouse feelings of pity and terror and thereby purge the soul, and as Bernard Shaw said, memorably “BURNED” into music by the titanic genius of Verdi.
              Such beautiful, glorious, deeply enjoyable music, every note, so many wonderful melodies.
              Thanks again for the link Yige, very grateful that I get to save the broadcast of this splendid performance and listen to it as often as I like!

    • fletcher

      Thanks for the link! Great performance -- I’m less enamored with Polenzani here than others, but Kelsey sounds great (very unique, almost hollow sound, but it works for me) and Feola, new to me, is amazing. Too bad about the Sparafucile! (I heard Kelsey in this production with Machaidze a few months ago, and next spring it’ll be in LA with both Nucci/Oropesa/Chacón-Cruz and Maestri/Lungu/Fabiano.)

  • Yige Li

    To add one more video, here’s Rosa Feola singing in Gianni Schicchi:

    She will reprise her Lauretta in Bayerische Staatsoper’s new production of “Il trittico” this winter which we can watch the webcast on Dec. 23 (which La Cieca has already included in the list on the page right, and I’m sure she will organize the chat). BTW, as is discussed some time before on parterre that it will be better and easier to have 3 sopranos singing the 3 leads than one primma donna to play the hat trick, and that’s exactly what Munich does: having Eva-Maria Westbroek as Giorgetta, Ermonela Jaho as Suor Angelica, and Rosa Feola as Lauretta. It seems to be a good casting, on paper at least.

    • Camille

      Oh good. I was going to ask if this would be webcast or not and then forgot. I look forward to it as Operabase does not list her future engagement at the Met, (as such you have indicated above)

      Thanks so much for all the informations!

      • Yige Li

        Come on, operabase only lists officially announced stuffs. It is not future met wiki! ^_^

        The interview was in the beginning of this year and she said her MET debut would be in 2 years. According to future met wiki, there indeed is a Rigoletto revival (with no cast listed) in 18-19.

        • Camille

          HahahaHA!! Future Met Wiki is the Delphi Oracle della lirica!!

          Who DOES put that stuff up there? It tends to be correct a lot of the time but it’s not a signed contract!

          Anyway, thanks for putting the Ieri, Oggi, Domani link up, as I did not know of them. Very nice interview and I am glad La Scottissima’s wonderful Gilda is passed on via La Rosa.

        • Yige Li

          Also realized MET future wiki has one “Il Trittico” revival for 18/19 with Kristine Opolais as “Heroines”. Of course, now it becomes suspicious if Opolais can do the hat trick. If MET is still going to keep the “Il Trittico”, do you think they will have Sonya Yoncheva taking the “Heroines” or have 3 singers completing the show? If being the later case, maybe we could hope to get Feola’s Lauretta as well!

          • Camille

            I am praying to Santa Cecilia in cielo that the Trittico has an emergency intervention of three sopranos instead of one overtaxed, over stressed and over and under parted soprano. One of the reasons I keep an eye on the Wiki Oracle is my concern about this upcoming trainwreck.

            Bradley Wilber, where art thou? I miss you!

            What is it with Yoncheva? The emergency go-to save soprano? Depends on the success, in part, of her upcoming Tosca. I would have her sing the Angelica, that would be nice. Rosa sings little Lauretta, and we’ll even let
            KO sing the Giorgetta! There, it’s decided! Done and done!

            • Yige Li

              Maybe having Netrebko singing Giorgetta, if this role can interest her. Then it’s almost impossible to have her in 3 productions a season. Could remove her Aida--just wait a little bit longer until 20/21. (Admitted, I say this being bit selfish as I’ve seen her Aida in Salzburg already.)

  • Niel Rishoi

    This certainly sounds like a truly viable Rigoletto cast from strength, which has not often been the case for the last few decades. Wonderful review.

  • Camille

    How refreshing to hear of such a great wonderful new singer. According to operabase, she has sung quite a few Gildas thus far so it would seem to be her calling card or cavallo di battaglia. Lucky Chicagoans!! I will try to hear it sometime in the future via radio. Oh! Oh just noticed Yige Li’s note below that there will be a broadcast of Falstaff on October 21st. Will listen in thanks.

    Oops! Just opened up the rest of Yige Li’s post to find all those goods. Thanks a lot! Most interesting.

    • grimoaldo2

      YIge has posted a link to the radio broadcast Camille,you can download and listen to it, it is WONDERFUL, not just for her although she is marvelous, Polenzani and Kelsey are also just superb and the orchestra excellent too.

      • Camille

        Thank you! Yes, I found it and will listen in when I can as I am most interested in this young lady as she has studied with Scotto whom I imagine would have been an excellent docent for this role. As well, I have missed out on Mr Kelsey thus far and as he will be singing three separate roles coming up in the Met season, I would like to have some idea of what he’s about. I mean, I hear some hype but that is hype. The truth lies somewhere else, or inbetween.