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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Opera Review: The Last Bitter Laugh

Rigoletto returns to the Met
Diana Damrau as Gilda in Rigoletto.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera

On Tuesday night, the Metropolitan Opera presented its third Rigoletto cast of the season, featuring the Serbian baritone Željko Lučić in the title role and the German soprano Diana Damrau as Gilda. Verdi's hunchbacked jester is a frequent visitor to the Met stage. However, this is the final run of the classic Otto Schenk staging of the opera that premiered (with Luciano Pavarotti as the Duke) back in 1989. A new production is scheduled for 2012.

Mr. Lučić has become a familiar presence in recent Verdi performances at the Met. Here, he followed up his excellent Macbeth with a searing portrayal of the title character. Mr. Lučić ruled the Duke's depraved court from his first entrance, embodying the physical aspects of the role while adding the right amounts of leer and sneer. He was even better in the nocturnal encounter with Sparafucile and "Pari siamo", the monologue that followed.

His performance grew in stature in the second act. Panic underpinned his "La ra, la ra's." His address of the courtiers dripped with venom. As he drove the Duke's supplicants from the stage, this deformed figure suddenly ruled the court--exactly as Verdi and Piave intended. His lengthy duet with Ms. Damrau was marred only by her overacting when the baritone was singing alone. The third act was also moving, with Mr. Lučić making the most of the pauses before his discovery of Gilda's corpse. At his last cry of "Ah! La maladizione!" the tragedy was complete, and so was a strong performance.

Giuseppe Filianotti was a disappointment as the Duke. His tenor lacked bloom, sounding tight and compressed during "Questa o quella." He was an underwhelming presence in the first and second acts, gulping liquid between stanzas of "Ella mi fu rapita!" and the following "Parmi veder la lagrime." Although "La donna è mobile" was decent, he mangled the final note in the offstage reprise at the end of the opera. (Perhaps Sparafucile had had enough.) As for everyone's favorite assassin, bass Stefan Kocan sang a compelling first scene with Mr. Lučić, and provided ample bass support in the crucial Act III ensembles.

Fresh from her run in Le Comte Ory, Diana Damrau made a scintillating entrance with "Caro nome", navigating this aria's high coloratura with pin-point high notes and command over Verdi's leaps, trills and ornamentation. She was a distracting presence in the second act, clutching at herself like Lucia and threatening to break into tears at any moment . The third act was better, with moving contributions to the quartet and trio, followed by a heart-wrenching death scene.

Principal guest conductor Fabio Luisi led a drum-tight, rhythmic performance of Verdi's score. The familiar opera was conducted with real pop, from the bated pauses in the Act I prelude to a thundering storm scene in the final act. Mr. Luisi provided expert accompaniment to his singers, but also illlustrated the importance of competent conducting in a succesful Verdi performance. As with the revival earlier this season, this run of the opera continued to use the smaller "touring" set, to make room for the giant machine required for the Ring.

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