Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Verdi Goes Indie

May 25, 2014 - Verdi’s Rigoletto
Regina Opera - Auditorium of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Sunset Park, Brooklyn)

We got these Rigoletto tickets on a whim (Verdi’s luring force) but really did not know what to expect, as we were not familiar with any of Regina Opera’s work. We went through the hour-long subway ride to get to Sunset Park with a mix of excitement (Rigoletto in Brooklyn!) and trepidation (what if they butcher it?). One can legitimately worry about an “indie” production of this opera, as Verdi cannot really be done small and requires musical firepower, mature singers and strong acting. Our suspicions increased as we entered the basic school auditorium, but boy were we in for a surprise as Regina Opera’s Rigoletto turned out to be one of the most emotionally charged and vocally superb performances we’ve seen this year.

The emotionally devastating father-daughter duo
Photo credit: Sarah Moulton Faux's website
Baritone Peter Hakjoon Kim gave it his all as Rigoletto. He put everything he had into his embodiment of this poor, deformed, tormented father. We started crying with his first duet with Gilda in Act I and wept all the way through all of Acts II and III. By the time the courtiers pushed poor Rigoletto to the ground and he rose up on his knees, infuriated, and launched into the whirlwind of emotions unleashed by Cortigiani, vil razza dannata, we were emotional wrecks. He had us entranced by his every emotional turn on the roller coaster of this passage in the opera. He took us from infuriated anger to suppliant pathos, from harsh accusation to heart-rending desperation and back again. This is Verdi at his best and Peter Hakjoon Kim really rose to the occasion. Without getting all agitated and without running around the stage, he kept his acting movingly composed and under control, even while beating his chest and moving us to tears. Letting the music work its magic, he made every nuance of this emotional roller coaster ride extremely vivid. Hakjoon Kim sang his heart out and brought the whole spectrum of his character’s emotions to the fore, with rawness and intensity.

Soprano Sarah Moulton Faux was impressive as Gilda. From the moment she first opened her mouth on stage we were struck by the freshness of her talent. She achieved a purity of sound as she belted out many of her most poignant lines. Her singing is truly angelic, rivaling even the experience of hearing Sonya Yoncheva in this role at the Met this season. Moulton Faux embodied all the piercing lyrical innocence demanded of a moving Gilda with perfect Italian diction. Her rendition of Caro nome was pure bravura and her duets with Rigoletto heart wrenching. She also really carried the quartet in Act III, Bella figlia dell’amore, with the force of her sustained high notes, her voice taking the harmonies of the other three voices into the upper atmosphere, both striking like lightning through the tempest and rising up above the storm clouds of the opera’s grand finale. She was a revelation.

A great manly tenor, finally
Photo credit: Paolo Buffagni's website
Tenor Paolo Buffagni’s Duca was another revelation, and an utterly unique one in the panorama of the most commonly heard tenors in the city. His is a manly voice, full and powerful, but at the same time bright and tender. As an Italian-born singer, his diction is excellent. The poetry of the language filled his mouth and one could really feel him lingering on the sound of each syllable with freshness and  mature expressivity. Buffagni was terrific throughout the opera, but excelled especially in the Duca’s double aria Ella mi fu rapita. The power of Buffagni’s instrument was impressive, particularly in the higher end of his register, achieving that irresistible melting effect that only truly great tenors can deliver. Something that is all too rare in the singers we’ve heard even at the Met in these manly kind of tenor roles.

Solid and convincing performances were also delivered by bass-baritone Rocky Sellers (Sparafucile), mezzo-soprano Lara Tillotson (Maddalena) and bass Jacopo Buora (Monterone).

We stand by the fact that it fundamentally does not matter where you set this opera. Regina Opera could have spared themselves the amateur sets and kitschy costumes and just given it to us nudo e crudo – or set it in Las Vegas for that matter. When the singing is this good, the emotions take their place at center stage, where they belong, and everything else is just a distraction. This is, after all, an incredibly moving story of an ill-starred father-daughter relationship with some of the most beautiful music Verdi ever composed. We could listen to it all day. In fact, we didn’t even want this troupe to stop for intermissions. We could have kept on rolling right through the steady euphoria of experiencing Verdi’s Rigoletto performed by such an inspiring group of singers and musicians in such an intimate setting.

Gilda cannot resist a good tenor
Photo credit: Paolo Buffagni's website
Stage direction was generally pretty basic, though at times there were some nice touches, such as Monterone’s daughter shown as heavily pregnant, emphasizing the humiliation of her father. Also, in the always tricky scene of Gilda’s abduction, Rigoletto arrives swigging a wine bottle, suggesting that his failure to notice that the courtiers are actually kidnapping his daughter is due in part to his alcoholic intoxication. The finale was beautifully executed in its simplicity. Peter Hakjoon Kim and Sarah Moulton Faux gave a wrenching rendition of the closing duet in which Gilda dies in her father’s arms. There is no need for anything fancy here, which is exactly the way they did it. Front and center they exchange their final words. The whole thing was beautifully paced, with conductor Gregory Ortega guiding the singers through this climactic moment with such clarity that both Mr. Kim and Ms. Moulton Faux were able to wring every last drop of emotion out of the tear ducts of Verdi’s score. It was just fantastic and it left us utterly devastated, just as a great Verdi opera should, drying the tears from our eyes as the house lights came up and the cast took their bows.

Regina Opera’s location may not be the hippest, their marketing strategies are questionable and their raffle at intermission (while charming in its genre) left us puzzled, but their Rigoletto was by no means “indie” and well worth the long subway ride. While the Sunset Park audience is sure lucky to have Regina Opera in their backyard, the Manhattan public too badly needs singers of the caliber we heard here, and we do hope that these great artists bring their talent and dedication across the East River prestissimo.  

Lui & Lei

Image credit: Regina Opera