Whoever claims that “The Golden Age” of opera was over many decades ago, never to return, should have attended the new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera. I did not experience the opening night on New Year’s Eve during which Quinn Kelsey sang the title role; I attended the January 7th performance. As Kelsey had experienced cold symptoms and later tested positive for Covid, he was replaced by baritone Michael Chioldi, who sang on January 4 and 7, and will sing again tonight at 7 p.m.
It has been a long time since I experienced a live operatic performance in which every member of the cast was exceptional and left their unique stamp on the role, no matter how big or small the role was. I must start with the surprise of the evening: baritone Michael Chioldi as Rigoletto. His is a true Verdian voice that displays booming power, tender softness, ravaging tragic colors, and that “lagrima nella voice” (the Italian “tear in the sound”—that certain essence of sorrow that practically elicits tears from the audience). This is what a true Verdi baritone does: he is at once capable of heartbreaking, multilayered tenderness and of unleashing an abundance of vocal power that gives the impression that he has hardly reached his limit and has even more to offer behind those roof-blowing cascades of sound.
Michael Chioldi in the title role of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” acknowledging his applause after singing the aria “Cortigiani” – Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
Rigoletto is one of the most complex baritone roles in all of opera. The contrast between the public persona of the buffoon who is paid to mock others and the private, tender, loving, widowed father who would do anything to protect his daughter is not a simple, stark contrast, for there are many entangled psychological nuances in between. When you have a baritone who is able to transmit those nuances through the colors and dynamics of his voice, and whose acting and body language complement this transmission in a subtle yet perceptible manner, you are in Verdian heaven. And that is where Michael Chioldi took the Metropolitan Opera audience, who in turn lavished him with ecstatic applause, especially after his aria “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” (Courtiers, vile, cursed kind), and a standing ovation for his curtain bow.
In the three duets with his daughter Gilda (Rosa Feola), besides tenderness, Chioldi was able to convey the fierce protectiveness and fear that plagues this role from the moment Monterone (sung with credible fury and pain by Craig Colclough) curses him to suffer the same fate as he did: the dishonoring of his daughter. The second duet added the element of vengeance as Rigoletto, determined to take his revenge on the Duke who fulfilled the curse by deflowering his daughter, shifted from tenderness to resounding determination. Chioldi sang “Si, vendetta” (Yes, revenge) with exciting urgency and power. The heartbreak of the final duet was palpable in his outpouring of grief “Non morir, mio tesoro, pietade” (Don’t die, my treasure, have mercy). His “No, lasciarmi non dei, non morir!” (No, you must not leave me, don’t die) and the last utterances of his daughter’s name, “Gilda, mia Gilda” (my Gilda) were heart-wrenchingly soft. Overwhelmed by pain, he made those last words of affection and desperation almost impossible to utter, which is a sign of a veritable singer-actor. At the end of Rigoletto, some baritones tend to accentuate the grief by adding more volume in lamentation, but this Rigoletto’s pain felt so real, profound, and human; it ran so deep that it could only be quiet. Then, with his final outburst of “la maledizione” (the curse), resigning himself to Monterone’s curse, we were again swept away by the force and abundance of Chioldi’s voice.
Piotr Beczala as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” – Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
The first voice we actually hear in Rigoletto belongs to the Duke of Mantua sung by star tenor Piotr Beczala. The brilliant sunshine of Beczala’s voice filled the opera house from the very beginning. His first aria “Questa o quella” (This one or that one) sparkled with youthfulness, impetuosity, and playfulness while his high notes blossomed with ease and radiance. In the encounter with Gilda, Beczala’s voice expressed an ardent sensuality coupled with touching sincerity that made Gilda’s infatuation with him totally plausible. His next aria, “Parmi veder le lagrime” (I seem to see the tears), proved a masterful display of sheer beauty of tone and emotionally expressive legato, while the second part, “Possente amor mi chiama” (Powerful love calls me) burst with verve and virtuosity. In the third—one of the most famous tenor arias of all—“La donna è mobile” (Woman is fickle), Beczala brought us back to the playfulness of the Duke’s first aria, and his voice resounded with both precision and lyricism, topped with a luminous high B-flat. Throughout the following quartet, “Bella figlia dell’amore” (Beautiful daughter of love) Beczala’s sweetness of tone and alluring phrasing enveloped Maddalena (sung with cool sensuality by mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan) as well as the audience in an aura of seduction and beauty.
Rosa Feola as Gilda and Piotr Beczala as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” – Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
Soprano Rosa Feola brought temperament and assertiveness to the role of Gilda, qualities one doesn’t see very often in the more ethereal or girlish interpretations of the role. The role is that of a teenager, and Feola’s adolescent Gilda was never passive; in fact, she fought her kidnappers and knocked a couple to the ground. Feola’s voice has a distinctive timbre: a blend of warm colors with a hint of darkness, limpid purity, and flexibility of tone. She was at her most moving and complex in the father-daughter duets. Her aria, “Caro nome” (Dear name), was exquisitely sung, and even though the end cadenza felt somewhat rushed, the final note showcased her mastery of vocal dynamics.
Andrea Mastroni as Sparafucile and Varduhi Abrahamyan as Maddalena in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” – Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
As Sparafucile, bass Andrea Mastroni, impressed through his generous sound, smooth legato, and vibrant low notes. He created the most nuanced murderer-for-hire that I have ever seen in Rigoletto. The Metropolitan Opera orchestra and chorus thrived under the superb, sensitive, and spirited conducting of Maestro Daniele Rustioni.
Curtain call after Verdi’s “Rigoletto” – from left to right: Varduhi Abrahamyan (Maddalena), Piotr Beczala (the Duke of Mantua), Michael Chioldi (Rigoletto), conductor Daniele Rustioni, Rosa Feola (Gilda), Andrea Mastroni (Sparafucile), Monterone (Craig Colclough) – Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
Tony-Award-winning director Bartlett Sher sets this production in 1920s Germany, during the Weimar Republic. Michael Yeargan’s set revolves on a turntable, which makes scene changes smoother and quicker, cinematic-like, as Sher himself has said: from the Art Deco home of the Duke to Rigoletto’s multilevel house to the inn that shows us the Duke’s seduction of Maddalena upstairs with Rigoletto and the heartbroken Gilda as witnesses downstairs. This production works on all levels. Sher’s adept staging, Yeargan’s impressive sets, and the stylish and sleek costumes by Catherine Zuber create a visually appealing mise-en-scène that does not distract from the singing. It is by far preferable to the previous production by Michael Mayer set in 1960s Las Vegas. And when the cast is as glorious as this one, it makes for a magical and unforgettable operatic experience.
Top photo: Michael Chioldi in the title role of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” – Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi at The Metropolitan Opera – upcoming performances:
Tuesday, January 11 at 7 p.m.
Saturday, January 15 at 8:30 p.m.
Wednesday, January 19 at 7 p.m.
Saturday, January 22 at 8 p.m.
Tuesday, January 25 at 7 p.m.
Saturday, January 29 at 1 p.m.