Rigoletto -- Metropolitan Opera, 1/18/2011
Machaidze, Chávez, Calleja, Meoni, Kocán / Arrivabeni
The Met finally has two baritones who can actually sing Rigoletto: Giovanni Meoni has followed up the promise of last season's debut Ezio with this musically impressive account of Verdi's baritone star turn. Nevertheless, Meoni is one of the main reasons why this feast of good singing adds up to less than it should.
Upsides first. Tenor Joseph Calleja is, as he was his debut season, a golden-voiced, sonically authoritative Duke -- this time strengthening act-by-act to spellbinding versions of "La donna e mobile" and the quartet intro. I've praised him enough on these pages, I think.
Calleja and Meoni have sung Verdi well here already, but Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze made her debut just earlier in the run. She's a very good singer, though not a classic Gilda: her voice has the part's whole range, but instead of chirpy sweetness there's a dark individuality (particularly in the middle) that may -- until she's known and famous and valued for it -- be taken as part-time sourness. In fact Machaidze's sound reminds me rather a lot of Angela Gheorghiu's, and I suspect her future is more in heavier stuff (where the darker character will show well) than today's chirpy -inas and -ettas.
Machaidze's Gilda, then, was less about the first act's youth and rapture than the latter acts' more painful storms -- which she both sang and acted with stronger conviction. Again, I saw echoes of Gheorghiu in dramatic temperament and even specific body language. One could do much worse, and I'm excited to see the young Georgian in a meatier role.
Also impressive (and again, with a nice sonic character) was relatively new Slovak bass Stefan Kocan as Sparafucile.
What didn't work, then? Well, Meoni is an unusually... upright Rigoletto: neither body nor spirit show more than the baseline minimum of warp from his life and environment. (In fact, this iteration of the court seems, for all the vice and cruelty, rather jolly -- which, mind you, may well be true to life.) That's a legitimate starting point, but though it's nice to see the him catch a moment of relaxation with his daughter after a rough day at the office, Meoni's jester never bodily reflects his later travails. He sings them well, but again without the full measure of horror. (I'd love to see Meoni as Miller, though, perhaps with Machaidze as Luisa.)
The other letdown was Paolo Arrivabeni, who debuted in the pit with this show in the fall. He actually does well in the broader things, pacing each number with well-judged energy, giving singers their space when necessary, and playing up dynamic contrasts in the score. But on the micro-level his sense of time seems to conflict with Verdi's: Arrivabeni's conducting, particularly in the rapid passages, tends to dissolve rather than emphasize the underlying beat/rhythm, undoing the contrast of forward motion and indelible time that gives Verdi's music -- even the melodies -- its characteristic charge. It recalled Adrianne Pieczonka's shortfall in last year's Boccanegra, but Arrivabeni made the whole cast sound like that -- except, thankfully, in the quartet.
This revival used, rather jarringly, an alternate configuration of the court and Rigoletto-home sets, not used here for two decades. The former was interesting, but the latter was shifted over so as to show much less of Rigoletto's home courtyard -- so the staging this time had Gilda wandering outside the gates to sing most of "Caro nome", a bit that made little sense.
Perhaps, if careers continue to flower, we'll look back at the names here decades later and wonder how great the combination must have been... But it's rarely so simple. Sounds great, though.