Three inspiring debuts lift Lyric Opera’s “Rigoletto” out of the routine

February 27, 2013

Albina Shagimuratova as Gilda, Andrzej Dobber in the title role of Lyric Opera’s “Rigoletto.” Photo: Dan Rest

What a bleak, godless and unforgiving landscape Rigoletto inhabits. Rape is sport, society is cruel and wholly amoral, and the purest and most innocent die horrible deaths.

Lyric Opera of Chicago revived Verdi’s dark three-act melodramma Monday night at the Civic Opera House. And, while the opening-night performance was slow out of the gate with some decidedly uneven moments, a trio of impressive company debuts provided enough vocal and dramatic fireworks to end the evening successfully.

It’s ironic that Verdi’s tale of the hunchbacked jester and the licentious Duke who seduces Rigoletto’s innocent daughter Gilda is popularly known for some of the composer’s sprightliest arias (Questo a quella and La donna e mobile). Even by Verdi standards, Rigoletto is relentlessly grim and merciless, painted in some of his most remarkable music, as with the celebrated quartet, the eerie low strings and wind writing for the assassin Sparafucile, and the remarkable offstage choral voices that contribute to the howling winds of the climactic thunderstorm.

Making her company debut as Gilda, Albina Shagimuratova started in anodyne fashion, singing under pitch and leading into Caro nome far too loudly. Yet the Russian soprano quickly found her footing, singing the rest of Gilda’s showpiece aria with great sensitivity and youthful, resplendent tone. Others have dispensed flashier coloratura cadenzas but in her less elaborate way, Shagimuratova’s artistry was just as striking, as with her seamless pianissimo decrescendos. Dramatically, she showed herself a fine, understated actress and assured stage presence, her Act 2 duet with Rigoletto beautifully rendered, and the soprano’s otherworldly radiance in the final scene rapt and moving.

The success of any Rigoletto hinges on the singer in the title role and, in his Chicago debut, Andrzej Dobber delivered the vocal goods in quite sensational fashion.

The role of the embittered hunchback fits the Polish baritone’s instrument like a perfectly tailored suit, Dobber possessing the requisite big, flexible baritone to encompass all the role’s considerable demands. Singing with great ease of production, Dobber was able to float a honeyed Italianate legato in his tender moments with Gilda as well as deliver the dramatic moments as with his vehement Cortigniani, where Rigoletto sings of his intense hatred for the nobles who torment him.

A tall man, Dobber eschewed the hunched-over shtick, and at times was a bit too generalized dramatically with some crucial moments needing more of the spark and intensity he brought to the final scene. Still, Dobber’s singing was a consistent pleasure and, along with Shagimuratova, reason enough to battle the winter weather to catch this production.

Not so much Giuseppe Filianoti. The Italian tenor has enjoyed success at Lyric as Nemorino and Edgardo, and, while the handsome singer fits the Duke of Mantua dramatically it was clear early in the evening that this role was going a vocal bridge too far.

Filianoti sang with an easy vibrant tone early on, apart from an ominous top note in Questa o quella. Soon after, the tenor cracked badly on a high note in E il sol dell’anima, and thereafter exposed top notes were rare and selective. Even after that scary moment, Filianoti largely sang solidly, and one had to admire his resourcefulness in getting through the rest of the evening (whiffing on troublesome notes, transposing down, using falsetto, etc.). But his performance morphed into a heartening if ultimately distracting example of artful grace under pressure than anything else.

Instead of the usual cold-blooded assassin, Andrea Silvestrelli’s Sparafucile was more of a backward, intellectually challenged dolt, an interesting take on the villain. In his third concurrent Lyric role, the towering Italian bass brought his innately idiomatic vocal style and 20,000-league voice to the hired hit man, sung with wonderfully imposing and resonant low notes.

Nicole Piccolomini was a sexy, smoky-toned Maddalena. And it was a pleasure to see Todd Thomas make his belated Chicago debut as Monterone. A veteran of countless roles in Sarasota Opera’s decades-long complete Verdi project, the baritone invested Monterone’s curse upon Rigoletto with daunting force and intensity.

Robert Innes Hopkins’ rotating traditional sets worked effectively, complemented by Jane Greenwood’s eye-catching period costumes.

In his Lyric debut, Stephen Barlow provided generally sound and capable stage direction with some jarring lapses. Having the Duke lolling about in bed with bimbos and walking around publicly in an open robe in his underwear for much of Act 1 was ridiculous and over the top even for the decadent Mantua court; for all the bawdy goings-on, the opening scene was curiously flat and lifeless. Too many key moments elicited unwonted laughter Monday, which could have been avoided with more careful direction. And having the maid Giovanna (J’Nai Bridges) stand behind Rigoletto and Gilda and distractingly upstage them by striking saucy poses with sitcom eye-rolling undermined the principals and should be jettisoned immediately.

Ryan Center member Joseph Lim brought a strong youthful baritone to Marullo, making a more humane figure of Rigoletto’s chief tormenter than usual. Bridges was a rich-voiced if over-prominent Giovanna, and John Irvin, Evan Boyer, Tracy Cantin, and Emily Birsan rounded out the cast in worthy fashion.

The third impressive debut of the evening was conductor Evan Rogister. Unlike many opera batonsmiths, the young American started his career as a singer, which was manifest in his alert and sensitive accompaniment to the cast and impeccable balancing, conveying Verdian fire while drawing an array of hues and dynamic subtleties. Rogister will also lead the Lyric’s March-April performances of Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, and is clearly a young talent on the rise.

The choral singing was magnificent, even stunning, throughout the evening. Ian Robertson has wrought such remarkable wonders in his interim guest assignment preparing the Lyric Opera Chorus that incoming chorus master Michael Black will have a bit of pressure to maintain this level when he comes aboard in August.

Rigoletto runs through March 30. Zeljko Lucic will sing the title role March 14-30.; 312-332-2244.

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