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Fresh Voices Triumph in Verdi’s Thriller

Brown Theater, Wortham Center
04/17/2009 -  and April 19, 24, 26, May 2
Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto
Eric Cutler (Duke of Mantua), Shon Sims (Borsa), Faith Sherman (Countess Ceprano/A Page), Scott Hendricks (Rigoletto), Octavio Moreno (Marullo), Adam Cioffari (Count Ceprano), Bradley Garvin (Count Monteron), Andrea Silvestrelli (Sparafucile), Albina Shagimuratova (Gilda), Jamie Barton (Giovanna), Tommy Ajai George (Usher), Maria Markina (Maddalena)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Richard Bado (chorus master), Patrick Summers (conductor)
Lindy Hume (director), Michael Yeargan (set designer), Peter J. Hall (costume designer), Paul Pyant (lighting designer), Brian Byrnes (fight director)

S. Hendricks & A. Shagimuratova (© Felix Sanchez)

Houston Grand Opera’s new staging of Rigoletto is a great success on almost every level. The casting suggested that this would certainly be a well-sung performance, and that it was. With the two male leads making their role debuts and Shagimuratova singing her first Italian-language Gilda, I was a bit concerned that these three complex characters might lose some dimensionality as their interpreters negotiated the newness of these extremely challenging Verdian creations. Fortunately, all worry was allayed from the outset, and HGO’s decision to “seek the next generation of Verdians…who could make a statement about this work” paid off.

Michael Yeargan’s inventive set and staging of Act I arrests visually, and Eric Cutler’s “Questa o quella” did the same, encapsulating everything we love to hate about the Duke in its very first phrase. Cutler created a virile, confident, conniving portrayal, skillfully altering his voice depending on the intended audience. Throughout the first act, he was several excellent singers and actors in one, shifting with ease between Machiavellian schemer and faithful lover. This set the precedent for the production, and the other leads followed suit.

Scott Hendricks created an eerie, neurotic Rigoletto, always reserving a hint of innocence in his portrayal. He may have lacked the last bit of power in some places, but he is a thoroughly compelling actor-singer. The staging of “Pari siamo!” was simple but effective, with singing that expressed Rigoletto’s knowledge of what this encounter would lead to. By the end of the opera, we had witnessed an excellently conceived character arc as the jester tried to come to terms with the unfortunate situation he was put in.

Shagimuratova was the biggest success of the night. She is more and more impressive with each appearance at HGO, and her Gilda should delight around the world. Her “Caro nome”, where the coloratura passages were clearly awakenings of latent passion in her character instead of showy ornaments, received an ecstatic response from the audience. Likewise, in “V’ho ingannato”, taken at a very measured pace, she tempered the natural brightness of her voice with excellent control as her life slipped away.

Smaller roles were a bit uneven. Andrea Silvestrelli has an enormous bass voice, resulting in a somewhat one-dimensional Sparafucile. Likewise, Maria Markina’s Maddalena lacked the venomous bite that I like in this role. She was reduced to an overly-pathetic character and it was hard to believe that she would actually be the one to murder Gilda. This was especially problematic in the great Act III quartet, with Silvestrelli overwhelming the texture, Markina hardly audible, and Hendricks and Shagimuratova hovering somewhere in between.

Patrick Summers led the HGO Orchestra superbly. They are always wonderful in Italian music, the woodwinds playing their exposed accompanying passages with Mozartean grace and the brass impeccable in their blend and power. Tempos throughout were extreme in contrast, adding a constant fiery energy to the score. The men of the HGO chorus were superb throughout, half of them joining the orchestra in the pit for the storm music.

The majority of the stage direction was convincing, but the opening of the second act was problematic. After a true moment of confessional tenderness from the Duke, his learning that Gilda is right there in his palace should be a joyous moment. Instead, Cutler laid down on the bed curled up in blankets almost as if this was bad news. Likewise, the idea to break the fourth wall by bringing up the house lights for “La donna è mobile” was contrived and unnecessary.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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