This performance was a bit unusual. The orchestra director (and co-founder of the company) Joseph Pucciatti also served as Artistic Director (as well as Stage Director and Set Concept). He decided that rather than setting the opera in the traditional mid-1800’s, that this production would be translated to 1938 Italy under the Fascist Mussolini. The Duke of Mantua was transformed into a high ranking official in Mussolini’s inner circle.
In my opinion, the transformation didn’t work. Aside from an additional scene after the overture which included newsreel footage of WWII, Mussolini and Hitler, and some shouted salutes to “Il Duce”, the main transformation was limited to military costumes and more modern scenery. By the third act, even the costumes and scenery seemed more appropriate to the original time period. Nice idea, but not worth the effort.
Aside from the strange transformation, the rest of the production was excellent as usual. The sets, while minimalist, were very good and most of the costumes were excellent. The orchestra as always was wonderful – these folks are always solid and deserving of their ovation before the 3rd act.
One thing that I like about this company is that they often bring in a director who has the performers act, rather than just “standing and singing”. Too many operas are produced like showpieces for the singing ability of their performers, with the actors simply standing in place and singing their lines. This company actually expects the players to move around while singing (and even sing from the prone position when appropriate). These opera feel less like concerts than they feel like plays with music. The players actually display emotion while performing. This production was very much in the “act” mode rather than the “stand and sing” mode. This is what keeps me coming back every year to their theater.
The title character hunchback was played by Constantinos Yiannoudes. We’ve seen him before as Figaro in The Barber of Seville and as the title character in Don Giovanni. He was excellent as usual and continues to prove that opera singers should also be able to act (and he can).
The Duke of Mantua was played by tenor Mark Schowalter. Before the opening curtain, it was announced that he was under the weather but wanted to proceed with the performance. His voice was a bit weak in the first act, but by the end of the performance he was up to nearly full volume. He was EXCELLENT in the role of a powerful man who cares not for the consequences of his actions or their effects on others.
In my opinion, the overlooked star of the production was Cheryl Evans in the role of Gilda, the love interest of the Duke and daughter of Rigoletto. As far as I can tell (and I have enough musical training to be able to hear the difference), she sang the whole opera nearly note perfect. During one aria, she hit several notes without vibrato that were exactly on pitch with the orchestra – to the point where I couldn’t even hear a beat frequency difference. She threw high C’s like confetti. She also acted excellently. I was disappointed to be one of very few who stood during her bow at the end of the opera – I believe that her contribution was overlooked.
One up-and-comer who was also excellent was Khary Laurent in the baritone role of Monterone. He acted and sang his small part with energy and emotion. I hope to see more of him with this company in the future.
I only have one complaint about the whole opera-going experience. The people sitting around us this time were downright rude. A row of senior citizens (apparently part of a bus trip from Brooklyn) loudly complained about the people sitting in front of them. One woman said, “Can you see? I can’t see – the woman’s hair [in front of her] is too big.” loudly enough that three rows of people heard her. I realize that we aren’t going to get a crowd in Trenton that is similar to the audience at the Met in NYC, but some civility is expected. Carolyn and I have been whacked with carelessly placed canes, hit by people’s coats, and been the subject of complaining about being too tall like the complaint quoted above. Neither of us is particular tall (we’re both about 5′ 9″) but apparently that’s a problem for these folks. And people wonder why the seats are going empty.
Next fall, the Boheme Opera Company is doing Verdi’s La Traviata and then in the spring of 2008 they will be experimenting with Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.