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Gagnidze Triumphs as Rigoletto in his Met Debut

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
01/24/2009 -  27*, 31 January and 4, 7, 12 February 2009
Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto
George Gagnidze (Rigoletto), Aleksandra Kurzak (Gilda), Guiseppe Fillanoti (The Duke of Mantua), Mikhail Petrenko (Sparafucile), Viktoria Vizin (Maddalena), Keith Miller (Monterone), Kathryn Day (Giovanna), James Courtney (Count Ceprano), Grazia Doronzio (Countess Ceprano), Mark Schowalter (Borsa), Sebastian Catana (Marullo), Patricia Steiner (A Page), Roger Andrews (Chief Guard)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Riccardo Frizza (Conductor)
Otto Schenk (Production), Zack Brown (Set and Costume Design), Gil Wechsler (Lighting Design), Sharon Thomas (Stage Director)

George Gagnidze (© Roberto Ricci/Teatro Reggio)

Chance was not kind to Rigoletto, a clear loser in life’s biological lottery. A hunchbacked jester filled with rage and bitterness over his physical deformity, he turned that rage on others and incurred their enmity. But chance can be a friend as well as an enemy. For George Gagnidze, an accomplished Georgian baritone who has built a career in Europe, and is currently a member of the German National Theater in Weimar, a bizarre and unlikely combination of circumstances delivered a career-changing opportunity. And he was ready to take it.

Gadnidze had achieved a major success singing Rigoletto at the Festival Verdi in Parma in 2008. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Zeljko Lucic, who was scheduled to sing Rigoletto at the Met, withdrew because of ill health. His replacement, Roberto Frontali, flew in to sing the first performance on January 24th and then flew out again. He will be back in April, but there remained five performances in the winter schedule without a Rigoletto. So it happened that George Gagnidze made his debut at the Met in a role that he owns, for as tenor José Carreras has said, “He is not just born for Rigoletto, he is Rigoletto”.

And so he was on Tuesday evening at the Metropolitan Opera, giving a performance that was a vocal and dramatic tour de force. He commanded the stage by his presence, as only the greatest actors do. And he sang with passion, unforced power, absolute control throughout his range, and a beautiful legato line.

The plot is simple and melodramatic. Rigoletto, the jester at the court of the Duke of Mantua, where seductions and betrayals are routine, keeps his daughter, Gilda, sequestered to protect her. Monterone, a father whose daughter is a victim of the Duke, puts a curse on him and on Rigoletto for mocking his grief. Frightened, Rigoletto becomes even more determined to protect Gilda, but it is already too late. The Duke, having seen Gilda go to church, pretends he is a poor student and declares his love for her. Monterone and members of the court kidnap Gilda as a trophy for the Duke.

When Rigoletto goes to the court to rescue his daughter, he finds her in despair. He takes her home and makes plans to have the Duke murdered by Sparafucile and send Gilda to Verona in disguise. But, first, he wants to destroy her love for the Duke by showing her his real character. She learns the truth (during the famous quartet) but, still in love, sacrifices herself in the Duke’s place, unbeknownst to her father. Rigoletto, believing that the sack given to him by Sparafucile contains the body of the Duke, is stunned to hear him singing in the tavern. When he tears open the sack, he finds his dying daughter. Filled with grief, he recalls the curse, which features in the overture and is threaded through the opera. It is a fine example of Verdi’s use of a theme for dramatic effect. In contrast to Wagner, whose leitmotivs are short structural building blocks, Verdi used longer, more lyrical themes as reminders of what has gone on before.

Rigoletto premiered at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice in March 1851. It was based on a play by Victor Hugo Le Roi s’amuse. In the preface, Hugo described his main character, Triboulet, as “a three-fold misery, which makes him evil. Triboulet hates the King because he is King, the nobles because they are nobles, and he hates ordinary men because they do not have humps on their backs.” Verdi, as did Hugo, had trouble with the censors. He and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, agreed to make some changes, but Verdi stood firm on the depiction of Rigoletto. “Putting on the stage a character who is grossly deformed and absurd but inwardly passionate and full of love is precisely what I feel to be so fine, ” he wrote. The opera was an immediate success. It was performed more than 250 times in the first ten years.

It was Coleridge who first used the phrase “the willing suspension of disbelief,” a state of mind required for true engagement with a work of art. With opera, such a suspension is particularly difficult. Yet, Gagnidze’s portrayal of the tormented and self-destructive Rigoletto was so convincing that, during his recitative in act three, “Egli è la…morto!” as he gloated over his supposed revenge killing of the Duke -- not knowing what we knew, that it was Gilda’s body in that sack, – the audience was transfixed. When he begged her not to die as her life slipped away, I heard sniffles and a few stifled sobs. His fate was much worse than his daughter’s; he killed the one person in the world whom he loved and who loved him.

Verdi gave Rigoletto two other key solos. In the act one recitative, “Pari siamo”, Gagnidze conveyed the character in all of his complexity, beginning with his heartbreak at being deformed and his rage at having to play the buffone. In the aria, “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata”, from act two, consummate acting is required and Gagnidze met the challenge. Rigoletto’s transformation from violent anger at the fate of his daughter to abject submissiveness and pleading on her behalf was psychologically compelling and extraordinarily moving. It is in the Rigoletto’s duets with Gilda that the tender and loving side of his character is revealed. In these, Gagnidze dazzled with fine legato singing and impeccable acting ability.

The Met Orchestra, under the baton of Riccardo Frizza, was marvelously effective in passages with light scoring such as the poisonous chromatic music introducing us to Sparafucile. And the orchestra was superb in the violent and dramatic storm scene in act three. The Met chorus was wonderful as always. Their sotto voce rendition of “Zitti, ziti”, was particularly memorable as was their offstage embodiment of the howling wind.

Gilda is the only other fully developed character in the opera. The soprano, Aleksandra Kurzak, an excellent actress, conveyed Gilda’s emotional progress from the naïve and cloistered young girl in the throes of a girlish crush to her decision to sacrifice her life for the Duke. Her coloratura was fine and she sang beautifully in her duets with Gagnidze and in the act three quartet and trio.

Guiseppe Fillanoti as the Duke gave an uneven performance. He projected weakly in the first two acts. He had problems with the upper end of his range early on but seemed to overcome them in the quartet.

Aside from Gagnidze, the other star of the evening was Mikhail Petrenko as Sparafucile, the knife-wielding assassin. When last seen in New York in November, he sang the part of the cook in a concert performance of Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges (read here), conducted by Valery Gergiev. In that performance, Petrenko’s deadly weapon was not a knife but a giant ladel! Here he was evil incarnate, with his gleaming bass voice seemingly rising out of the depths of his soul (except that Sparafucile probably did not have one).

Rigoletto will be broadcast worldwide on radio, live from the Met, on Saturday 31 January (listen to operainfo.org). For Gagnidze’s performance alone, this broadcast should not be missed.

George Gagnidze’s website

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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