An imaginative Florentine Rigoletto
This time around with Verdi’s Rigoletto, the Florentine Opera is trying something a little different. Designer Noele Stollmack dispensed with the velour and the fake gold leaf and set the action amid a versatile anywhere of platforms and staircases, with many access points for easy entrance and exit. The cast looked very comfortable moving about the set.
Scrim panels veil the distance and allow for subtle plays of color lighting and the display of silhouettes. Side lights allowed dramatic and highly selective use of shadow play. (Sparafucile, the hired assassin, casts an ominously long shadow.)
The skill of the actors, the mood of the lighting and our imaginations filled in the locales. Stollmack’s open-plan set worked especially well in Act 3. Instead of peeking through an unconvincing chink in an unconvincing wall, Rigoletto and Gilda stood in the open in relative darkness and watched the Duke seduce Maddalena in relative light.
Diector William Florescu mostly used the set and his cast effectively. He staged — and Audrey Babcock and Arturo Chacón-Cruz played — that Act 3 seduction scene notably well. You rarely see opera singers move with Babcock’s sensual, sinuous ease. Stephen Morscheck’s cold-eyed Sparafucile was dead-on.
But Florescu allowed his Rigoletto, Luis Ledesma, way too much freedom to clutch and stagger in that stock operatic way. I’m all for opera singers moving when it serves dramatic purpose, but Ledesma was busy to the point of distraction and 90% of it drew no motivation from the text, the physical action or the music. Rigoletto is a hunchback; every step hurts. So don’t lurch around so much.
Ledesma’s best acting was in his singing. The bitter tone and jabbing accents in his singing at court revealed his contempt. That made the tenderness in his voice in his scenes with Gilda, his beloved daughter, all the more affecting.
Chacón-Cruz is like a young pitcher with a 98-mph fastball that he can’t quite control. This is a big, tautly focused tenor with that prized Verdian “ping.” Pitch was an issue Friday, not in the sense of egregious clinkers, but in too many near misses in mid-phrase and in long tones that started dead center but drifted as he held them. His voice is a powerful instrument, but a blunt one; he sang absolutely everything at forte or louder Friday.
Georgia Jarman, as Gilda, stole the show by refusing to overdo anything. I’ve seen her up close; she’s tall and athletic. On stage, she seemed tiny and as fragile as a canary, but didn’t sound like a canary. She wielded her weighty yet agile lyric soprano with fine precision for the purpose of emotional expression. Her rhythmic flex, great dynamic range and sure sense of the harmonic pressure points made her Caro nome at once dazzling and deeply touching. She wedded her singing to a beautiful, dance-like presentation remarkable for its natural, girlish quality and for its lack of interference with her singing.
Joseph Rescigno, conducting the singers and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, framed the singing of Jarman and all the cast most sympathetically. Rescigno enforced apt tempos every beat of the way, excellent balance within the orchestra and between the orchestra and the singers, and maintained a powerful, overarching momentum. This Rigoletto is one of Rescigno’s very best efforts in his long Florentine tenure.
Likewise, Scott Stewart prepared the men of the Florentine Opera Chorus very well. They were true, strong and confident throughout.