New York City Opera
March 2, 2001

At some point this evening, I learned that tonight was opening night of the Spring half of the 2000-2001 season, and that the opera being presented was a new production with several singers making their debuts. So you can imagine my shock when I looked around and found that 10% to 20% of the seats were empty.  I also remembered—from my readings on the subject—that Verdi had, at one time, planned to entitle this opera "La Maledizione".  Well, tonight, the only real malediction of the evening was the production by John Conklin.  He seems to like large architectural slabs to serve as houses, walls, rooms, and the like.  In fact, one of the walls of Rigoletto’s house appeared to be built of bricks.  Did they use bricks in 16th century Mantua?

Yes, the time and place of this production is “Mantua, during the 16th century,” as written on the evening’s program.  There seemed to be somewhat of a effort to place the action in the 1500s, especially with Tracy Dorman’s stylized costumes for both courtiers and principles, despite the yarn wigs (in all hair colors) worn by the women of the court, the nylon trousers worn by the men and the black kerchiefs, bandannas or skullcaps they wore.  This must have been a time of mourning, because the predominant colors of the costumes were black, dull, deep red, green and blue. {Maybe they were really Jewish and sitting Shivah?] In fact, the stylized dances of Act I made the music seem like a dirge.  Furthermore, Gilda’s dress in Act I scene 2 appeared to be based on the clothing style of the Stepford Wives (I caught “Revenge of the Stepford Wives” on TV the other day and was struck by the similarity).

But I’ve seen other productions by John Conklin at NYCO: his Abduction from the Seraglio, reviewed elsewhere in this section, Partenope, which I found very odd, scenically, Of Mice and Men, which I really liked, Lizzie Borden, which I found most interesting and appropriate, Falstaff (with Sherrill Milnes) which I found hard to like, Orfeo ed Euridice, The Turn of the Screw, which I found absolutely fascinating and riveting, and Macbeth, which I hated completely.

Also, I’m going to have to blame director Rhoda Levine for the silly, stylized dance steps in Act I, since no choreographer is credited.  I guess she is also to blame for those slow-motion, broad-movemented card games played by the courtiers during Rigoletto’s impassioned "Cortegiani, vil raza dannata" in Act II.  Oh, and now that we are in Act II, I must tell you that it looks like a beach terrace with slatted lawn chairs and tables from K-Mart. (Hmm-m-m, did 16th century Mantua have its own version of K-Mart?)

I have not even gotten to that final act where Sparafucile’s house consisted of two highly angled walls, with an entry door all the way upstage, right.  The Duke and Maddalena were inside and Rigoletto and Gilda were downstage right (otherwise, the latter two would be out of the audience’s sight line.  Also, Gilda had to do a lot of running around before getting stabbed because she had to knock on the door, run downstage right to sing, then run back upstage behind the wall and enter the door so Maddelena could push her against Sparafucile’s dagger.  I really don’t know if I want to go as far as calling this production "Ameritrash," but it comes pretty close.

After over a page of discussing the production, I think it is time to get to the singers. The originally scheduled Rigoletto, Mark Delavan, had to cancel because of a raging throat infection.  He was replaced by Canadian baritone Gaétan Laperrière, who debuted at NYCO in 1991 as the elder Germont.  Laperrière’s voice is certainly up to the role and his vocal acting was superb.  Unfortunately, his lack of appropriate body language throughout the opera leads me to believe that he had very little, or no, rehearsal time in this new production and had to spend more attention to where he was supposed to be than providing a total performance—which I am convinced he could do with appropriate rehearsal time.  Although I would like to hear Delavan in the role, I refuse to waste my money on this awful production.

Christina Bouras, soprano from Arlington, Virginia, made her NYCO début as Gilda.  When looking at her credentials, it appears she may share some roles with Lisa Saffer.  She certainly has the technique and the notes to sing this role, and is one of the few cast members who truly contributed histrionic power to an essentially lackluster performance.  Unfortunately, however, I am not fond of the sound of her voice, despite all her talent and accomplishment as a singing actress.  But we must remember that that’s my personal taste; I found her voice has a “covered” quality and questioned her ability to reach all the high notes.  I’m happy she was able to, and also considered that aspect of my judgment perhaps due to the State Theater’s acoustics and possible electronics.

Another impressive debutante of the evening was Kristin Chávez as Maddalena.  Her rich mezzo, attractive appearance and believable acting provided Maddalena with a substance and personality rarely observed in this role. She will sing Carmen next season and I shall make every effort to hear her.

Bass, Peter Volpe, who débuted as Don Giovanni in 1999, was a vocally resplendent and physically handsome Sparafucile.  In fact, he was as handsome as his sister was beautiful, and I look forward to hearing him in many bass roles at NYCO.

Having made his NYCO début as Sarastro in 1999, John Marcus Bindel was an almost fire-breathing Monterone.  His two or three short scenes also provided life to this truly boring performance.

At this point I am forced to discuss the Duke of Mexican tenor, Raul Hernandez. Here, he was reprising his NYCO début role of 1998.  While his credentials are most impressive—filled with numerous early Verdi as well as bel canto roles—his performance on 2 March did not impress this listener. While his voice was pleasant enough, his performance was “smaller than life”—lacking the dramatic expressiveness one would expect from a satiric, spoiled nobleman who, like Don Giovanni, experiences joy, anticipation and excitement at even the thought of new conquests.  Several times during the performance, I could not help but feel that his interpretation needed a couple of shots of testosterone.

While I found nothing wrong with the conducting of Heidelberg-born Guido Johannes Rumstadt, who has already conducted Madama Butterfly at NYCO, I must attribute some of the performance’s lack of excitement to this conductor who is also General Music Director in Regensberg.

I regret to have to comment that this performance was one of the most disappointing I have heard in an opera house in many a year.

-- Howard of Griswold Hall   

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