Though Bartlett Sher’s Rigoletto premiered less than a year ago, it feels like it’s been here forever. The monolithic revolving set and blandly flattering costumes scream “Met revival” (what Michael Mayer’s Vegas production screamed is a whole other question), and the much-discussed Weimar Konzept offers not much at all.
It therefore falls upon the singers to make something of the production—luckily, last night we had a starry array of Met debuts to provide a frisson of excitement.
The main reason to see this revival is Benjamin Bernheim’s Duca. Over the past few years Bernheim has steadily become the lyric tenor of choice in Europe, and when I’ve heard him in Zurich and Vienna I’ve been impressed by the elegance of his singing. But how does that translate to a house the size of the Met?
Happily, he more than fulfils expectations—I’ve never heard him sound quite so thrilling, filling the auditorium with burnished tone. The glory of his voice is his soaring upper register, with endless reserves of power. But it’s in the softer moments that find him at his most impressive, with effortless gruppeti and meltingly tender sound.
He’s not the most charismatic actor, and lacks the edge of danger the character needs, but he has a wonderful sincerity that would suit any romantic hero. Bring him back soon—dare we ask for a new production of Faust?
Bernheim was partnered nicely by Rosa Feola’s Gilda, a known quantity from the premiere run. Though her lyric soprano is as delectable as ever, I got the sense that she will soon outgrow the role—the stratospheric staccati of act one, never her particular strength, sounded less comfortable this time around, and her high E flat comes out of sheer willpower at this point.
Still, she’s always been her best in the final two acts, marrying ravishing tone with a desperate vulnerability that recalls Cotrubas at her best—no easy feat.
Quinn Kelsey’s Rigoletto also returned from the premiere run, and is once again fulfils all of the role’s demands without being truly revelatory. He’s at his best in court scenes, snarling at the courtiers with real bite. But when it comes to Rigoletto’s big moments, it’s not quite enough—his easy legato and burnished, muscular tone should be ideal for “Cortigiani”, but it comes across as excellent singing without being the moment of catharsis it should.
The other major onstage debutante was Russian mezzo Aigul Akhmetshina, who made a splash jumping in as Carmen at the Royal Opera House at age 21. Maddalena has become a calling card role for her around Europe, and she certainly has the plummy sound for the part.
It’s a bit small-scale for the Met, and her sound gets a bit lost in the quartet, but she vamps around the stage with such charisma that it almost doesn’t matter. As her brother, John Relyea sounds better than he has in years, offering inky sound and hulking sleaziness. Keep an eye out, as well, for Brittany Renee, a Countess Ceprano of unusual presence.
The final debut of the evening came from the pit. Speranza Scappucci combined dramatic flair and boundless energy with scrupulous attention to her singers, drawing some gorgeous rubati from the orchestra. Her tendency to push the tempo was thrilling at times, bumpy in others—the hurtling speed of “Cortigiani” robbed it of its power—but she has a real feel for Verdi’s music and would certainly be an asset to the house in the future.