Opera season opens with forceful 'Rigoletto'

October 17, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

No one -- not even Mozart -- wrote operas more powerfully affecting than Verdi's in their presentation of fully realized human beings.

When reasonably well-done, works such as "Rigoletto" strike us with a force similar to that of reading a Tolstoy novel or seeing a Shakespeare play. Human beings live and die before our eyes, and -- because it is art, not life -- we are helpless to intervene.

The important thing about any production of "Rigoletto," which the Baltimore Opera Company performed Saturday at the opening of its current season at the Lyric Opera House, is that this tragic music drama must inspire the requisite pity and fear. This production succeeded: It was an honorable mounting of an affecting work.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the production's success was conductor Cal Stewart Kellogg. Kellogg is such a familiar figure on the regional opera circuit, that one tends to take him for granted. But his knowledge of the repertory and his ability to get an orchestra through difficult music with a minimum of rehearsal time are not to be taken for granted.

Moreover, he conducted a performance in which he set the music winging along -- one in which he was able to whip up the elements in Act III's storm trio as well as give lyrical support to the singers in the same act's famous quartet. Verdi's score asks that the music be delivered with the power of a thunderclap, and Kellogg delivered.

With one exception, the singers -- even in smaller parts -- were strong. The exception was tenor Stuart Neill in the role of the libidinous Duke of Mantua. The Duke is a character who most be presented as --ing, irresponsible and fatally attractive -- how else would a character such as the virginal Gilda be seduced by him?

Like any great dramatist, Verdi knew a great deal about first impressions and the Duke's first entrance ("Questa o quella"), superficial as it may be, tells us exactly what we need to know about the Duke: he is a rogue and a charmer -- nothing more or less. This is an aria that must be sung with ease and elegance; but Neill delivered it as if he were Dom Deluise -- with hectoring coarseness that continued throughout most of the evening.

This is apparently a minority opinion, however; the tenor's bellowing drew like-sounding cheers from an enthusiastic audience.

This listener was more enthusiastic about the other singers, particularly about baritone Mark Rucker as Rigoletto. This was a beautifully sung, intelligently acted and and insightful portrait of a character we initially perceive as a bitter monster and grow to sympathize with as a grieving father. And Jane Thorngren gave us a Gilda with lovely trills, a fresh-sounding voice and vocal sex appeal of the purest kind.

In smaller roles, the Ukrainian basso Alexander Savtchenko was a Monterone whose curse evoked an authentic chill of prophecy; Gregory Stapp was a vocally and physically imposing Sparafucile; and Corina Circa was a sufficiently well-sung and attractive Maddalena.

"Rigoletto" will be repeated Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Lyric Opera House.

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