Saturday, April 04, 2009

The girl who knew too much

Rigoletto -- Metropolitan Opera, 4/1/09
Frontali, Damrau, Calleja, Aceto, Mumford / Frizza

I went this time for the tenor, but the emotional effect of Verdi's Rigoletto most depends on its soprano. And while Diana Damrau's performance as Gilda was in some ways outstanding, it fell short in this respect. Gilda's role in the scheme of the show is clear, and mentioned in seemingly every program note iteration. As the author of the original play (Victor Hugo, in fact) put it, "[Rigoletto] has two pupils -- the [duke] and his daughter: the [duke], whom he has trained to vice; his daughter, whom he has reared for virtue. One destroys the other." As simple and elegant as that -- something even the least inquisitive soprano can convey.

But Damrau introduces a novel element: her Gilda is from the start nervous and agitated, preoccupied even as she greets her loving father. It is clear that this is a girl deceiving her father, and it shows some acuity on Damrau's part to pick up on this relatively neglected thread. For Gilda is concealing something from Rigoletto -- her developing romance with the (incognito) Duke -- and for her to show worry about it during her reunion is a neat piece of psychology. And yet it's quite wrongheaded: worry or no, one hears in Verdi's score Gilda caught up in her father's love as she is later in the Duke's, responding to the former in a heart-racing, liberating reunion duet that purges for a time the fetid atmosphere of court and curse. Here Damrau is (as ever) correct and precise, but neither warm nor responsive -- and worse, she continues to fidget with spunky sitcom-heroine anxiety, trying to arrange the situation to some clever and happy end -- Gilda as Norina or Rosina.

Child of virtue this isn't. In fact it makes nonsense of the rest of the story. For Gilda's innocence isn't just romantic or sexual but moral: not having been taught about the corrupt and tragic world, it's probably never even occurred to her that there could be any more-than-temporary incompatibility between her own happiness, her father's, and her beloved suitor's. (And here, the Disney princess portrayal of Damrau's immediate predecessor Aleksandra Kurzak was exactly right.) Her sacrifice at the end is powerful because it is her first moral act, made with the understanding she did not have beforehand. (Kurzak did less well here.) But from the start, unfortunately, Damrau knows more about Gilda's position than she does. So Damrau's version never has any innocence to lose -- and therefore even the Duke's attraction begins to lose its sense. What particularly draws him if not the pre-lapsarian self-satisfied wholeness of Gilda's love and bearing? (Yes, as we later see, he chases anything that moves, but his declaration in "Ella mi fu rapita! ... Parmi veder" is quite clear.)

*     *     *

Bizarrely, the cast member who could best project Gilda's fundamental wholesomeness is probably the mezzo playing Maddalena, seductive accomplice and sister to the assassin Sparafucile. It's been oddly entertaining over recent years to see Tamara Mumford go through character parts for which her looks and remarkable voice, at least, seem a natural fit: adulterous femme fatale Lola (Cav), gypsy moll Matryosha (War & Peace), and now Maddalena. (The encore at her recent recital -- the Seguidilla -- seems to indicate that Carmen may at some point -- perhaps she's covering it next season? -- be the climax of the series.) There is a certain sensual element in her portrayals (not least through the actual rich sound), and the characters' emotions are directly and pointedly expressed, but there is a distinct lack of the lascivious, giving these not-quite-respectable characters an unexpectedly dignified integrity. In any case, Maddalena's main job -- providing rich, rhythmically precise accompaniment before and during the last-act quartet -- Mumford handles with aplomb.

Raymond Aceto does less well as the assassin brother, not objectionable but in no way as interesting a Sparafucile as his predecessor Mikhail Petrenko. Roberto Frontali remains from January's cast, and is actually somewhat better in the lead part this time: a bit more dynamic variation at climaxes, and a bit less flailing at the top notes. He doesn't have the full Verdi instrument of a Zeljko Lucic, but he makes the most of it. (Unfortunately, his nervous wreck of a Rigoletto -- interesting before -- combines poorly with Damrau's nervous wreck of a Gilda.)

As the more or less one-dimensional Duke, Joseph Calleja (of whom I've raved enough of late) sang each act with ever-increasing authority and focus, finishing with a show-making display in the quartet and the bedtime "La donna e mobile" fragments afterwards. As last time -- and despite a new round of new cast coordination issues -- Riccardo Frizza conducted with almost as much fire and spirit as the much-missed Asher Fisch in 2005. It's too bad that he (and I'm fairly sure by now that it was his decision, given Damrau's stratospheric skill) again kept out the soprano's big quartet-capping high note...

UPDATE (4/5): For some reason, Mumford has been replaced for the remaining performances by the original Maddalena this season, Viktoria Vizin. Strange -- did something happen last night?

UPDATE 2 (4/5): Never mind? A commenter states that Vizin was originally scheduled for subsequent performances anyway. This may well be correct, though I do seem to remember seeing otherwise. Ah, memory.


  1. Nothing happened with Mumford, it was scheduled this way all season. Last fall sometime I made these entries in my Google calendar as a reminder, after being blown away by Calleja in Macbeth (on your tip, thanks!):

    MET: Rigoletto w/Calleja & Mumford
    Sat, April 4

    MET: Rigoletto w/Calleja, Vizin
    Tue, April 14

    MET: Rigoletto w/Calleja, Vizin
    Fri, April 17

    Thanks so much for your blog and wonderful writing. I've been lurking here for a while, and as an opera newbie have found it an incredible resource. I've also caught remarkable performances on your recommendation (Fleming's Desdemona - twice, Radvanovsky) that I won't soon forget. I got a ticket early for Calleja's Elisir and (esp. after the gala - he was incredible in the house, I agree), I can't wait. Thanks again.

  2. Thanks for the info, and the compliment. I'm glad my suggestions here have been helpful...

  3. Another spot on review. I do not blame you for loving Calleja. This man sounds like a voice copulation of Jussi and Luciano. His damn voice sounds microphoned and I would have suspected amplification had it not been for the fact that at many points him and Damrau were almost singing mouth to mouth!! It has been since the YOUNG LUCIANO that we didn't have such spot on, easy and effortless singing with beautiful italianate voice to boot. Is it true he is only 31?

    Damrau is technically perfect but the voice lacks body in the middle part and for this repertoire it is perhaps a size too small for the house. Frontali's second night (I was there both nights) was better than the first.

    Mumford was spectacular as Maddalena in both voice and looks and Aceto (the only point where I disagree with your review) spot on and in part.

    The most amazing moment for me was the quartet where Calleja actually overpowered his colleagues WITHOUT forcing. I do not think he does this on purpose but I do suspect its the fantastic placement his voice has.

    las but not least I was blown away by Riccardo Frizza - this a GREAT singer's conductor in the making - hope the MET re engages him A LOT!!!

  4. I'm so glad you said that about Damrau. I have just seen the Dresden Rigoletto with Lucic, Damrau and Florez - because I was disappointed Lucic wasn't singing ours like he was supposed to - any idea why not?

    Anysay, in watching the dvd, I kept thinking Damrau was looking sneaky and guilty about the whole thing, so I'm glad you mentioned it, and I'm not the only one who thought so.

    I did think Calleja was wonderful - I also enjoyed him in the Chicago Traviata last year too.

    Keep the comments coming - I like reading your blog!


  5. Thanks for the comments. I have no reason to believe Calleja's *not* 31. Amazing that he and Villazon both launched as Operalia winners in 1999 (though Villazon was six years older). Kuda, kuda...

  6. Sure, Calleja is wonderful - as long as he is miked. Must I also point out that Frontali was ALSO miked? A travesty, in my opinion. Frontali was all over the place, almost cracking a few times in the first duet with Gilda. I am more than surprised you found his performance in any way strong(er).

  7. OK, when I say no anonymous comments, I especially mean anonymous baloney comments.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.