Steeped in the Classicals: Calleja Steals a Crown Jewel of Western Civilization

04/07/2009 9:00 AM |

Sometimes, Henry Stewart likes to sit in his Bay Ridge apartment, wearing nothing but a top hat, and write reviews of classical music events around the city, which he then emails to us. We call these reviews… Steeped in the Classicals.

In the first half of the 1850s, Giuseppe Verdi composed three consecutive operas: Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata. Not only are they the three strongest works by one of the strongest composers of the second millennium, but the bookending two are among the finest accomplishments of the Western Canon — what we as a (human) race could cite were genocidal space aliens ever to accuse us of having cultivated a lackluster civilization. Unfortunately, the Rigoletto currently playing at the Metropolitan Opera isn’t the best you’ll ever see, but it serves as a strong introduction to a superlative opera — and it features one of opera’s most exciting stars.

An old production, designed by Otto Schenk, who’s responsible for many of this season’s productions at The Met, this Rigoletto is traditional and conservative, which proves a virtue: stately and lavish, with towering column and tunnel-ish staircase backdrops, the opulent sets (by Zack Brown) are a reliable backdrop to the tragic tale, and they reflect the not-exactly-subtle psychological subtext of each scene. They’re a magnificent complement to Verdi’s majestic score.

All of the composer’s familiar musical tropes are in place: the epic group numbers, the graceful duets, the aching arias. The libretto, by Francesco Maria Piave (adapted from a controversial — at the time — Victor Hugo play), concerns the debauchery of the nobility and the ill effects their promiscuous adventures have on the common folk. The title character is a hunchbacked jester that serves the Duke of Mantua, a womanizer who steals the heart of Rigoletto’s naïve, churchgoing daughter, Gilda. (Rita Hayworth, she ain’t.)

Each of the three central characters owns one of the three acts, and each act gives that character a role-defining aria. Gilda gets hers in Act I’s "Gualtier Maldè!," more often referred to as "Caro nome". It’s one of the most affecting pieces of music in the repertoire; its melodies drift down scales softly, like broke-off flower petals onto a forest floor, and it calls for vocal virtuosity on par with The Magic Flute‘s "Der Hölle Rache". Diana Damrau proves she can handle the Mozart in this clip (skip two minutes in), but she wasn’t up to the Verdi on Wednesday night. The opening bars had me in anticipatory shivers, even tears, but she lost me soon after she began singing. When Damrau held back, it was darling, like she was giggling; she’s a master of the soft flutter, but when she needed to be forceful her voice didn’t carry, as though a screen covered the proscenium to filter out her voice. She also sounded a bit too theatrical at times, although her gasping may have been a result of the brisk pace set by conductor Riccardo Frizza. (Listen to my favorite recording, sung by Alida Ferrarini.)

Damrau made up for the uninspiring "Caro" at points throughout the night, including an emotional "Tutte le feste al tempio" (watch her sing it in a different production — there are no Satan masks in Schenk as a general rule — here), the second act duet Gilda sings with her father. Rigoletto (Roberto Frontali) gets his best number early in the same act: the frantic and desperate "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata," which Frontali sang with drama, force and top-note clarity. (Hear Carlo Tagliabue sing it.) Act II, in which Gilda has been kidnapped — because the opera is set in a time in which it wasn’t, apparently, uncommon to steal women for sex — belongs to Rigoletto, as he toggles between the pitiful madness of searching for his daughter with a vengeful heart and the gentle, reassuring, and forgiving tone of his lovingly paternal melodies, once he has found her.

But the opera’s highlight is its final act, which, in Schenk’s production, is a master class in stage lighting, with lightning flashes and the gradual onset of a green-glowing dawn. Even though he sleeps through most of it, Act Three belongs to the Duke of Mantua. Jose Calleja stole last season’s Macbeth with only one major piece to sing, "O figli miei". (Hear Franco Corelli sing it.) Here, he stole the show again, though with a meatier role. The Duke has the bulk of the best arias, including the opener "Questa o quella" — "this one or that one," an ode to philandering with lines like "fidelity is slavery/avoid it like the plague". (Hear Calleja sing it — and watch him make funny faces.) The Duke also gets to sing "La donna e’ mobile" (hear Calleja sing it), the opera’s most familiar number, which had audience members around me humming along (where are we, Madison Square Garden?); Calleja nailed it with a limpid, robust performance that glided through trills, alternating between bluster and quiver. The reprise was even crisper; with the pressure of delivering such a famous piece relived, he hit a startling high note. The up-and-coming Calleja has one of the most exciting voices in the field; Rigoletto is worth seeing right now, not only for the music he sings, but because he’s the one singing it.

Rigoletto plays April 9, 14 and 17 at 8 p.m. with the bulk of the cast in tact, barring any last minute replacements. See the Met’s website for more information.