Bard SummerScape to perform Rubinstein’s Демон

This summer it’s a return to Eastern Europe, if you call St. Petersburg “Eastern Europe,” not “Western Asia”…anyway, Bard SummerScape performs Демон (Demon) by Russian composer Anton Rubinstein. In addition, the Bard Music Festival presents Rimsky-Korsakov and His World, with a focus on The Poetry of Cinema. Other features include Leonard Bernstein’s Peter Pan, based on the J.M. Barrie play, adapted and directed by Christopher Alden.

Anton Rubinstein’s operatic masterpiece Демон first premiered to great acclaim at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in January of 1875. It was his most successful opera, though neither his first nor his last; although performed frequently in Russia, the opera is infrequently performed in the USA or in Western Europe. It is known to most of us, if at all, primarily by recordings of live performances. Bard’s SummerScape brings it to life!

 Демон is based on a fantasy poem by Mikhail Lermontov, which was written in 1841. The opera is in three acts, these bracketed by a Prologue and Epilogue/Apotheosis. The opera boasts rich choral writing, a lot of moody solemnity, a range of emotional despair, death and transfiguration. Not to give it away, Heaven wins, the Demon loses.

  The Demon hovers over Tamara in Bard's production of  The Demon  

The Demon hovers over Tamara in Bard's production of The Demon 

The 2018 Summerscape production of Демон is conducted by Leon Botstein and directed by the renowned American director Thaddeus Strassberger, with sets by Paul Tate dePoo III, costumes by Kaye Voyce, and lighting by JAX Messenger. An all-Russian cast is led by the lovely sparkling-voiced soprano Olga Tolkmit in the role of Tamara, alongside baritone Efim Zavalny in his American debut in the title role. Bard opera fans will recall that Tolkmit appeared last season as Xenia in Bard’s stirring production of Dvořák’s grand opera Dimitrij.

The tale of the Демон is relatively straight forward: in the Prologue, the Demon is bored, even doing evil is no fun anymore. The Angel tells him love will solve his problem, but warns that love is sacred in Heaven and on Earth. In Act I, the Demon, cruising low, comes upon the beautiful Tamara and her Nanny. Tamara senses something: at first he is only a presence, but then he is a haunting, enticing voice, and finally he appears. Tamara is struck as much by his beauty as by her own strange emotions, but Nanny comes to the rescue. All the while Tamara is awaiting the return of Prince Sinodel for their wedding.

Change of scene: Sinodel, high in the mountains, longs to return to his true love. He is accompanied by his wise Old Servant and several retainers as they travel through the night, but they are ambushed by Tartars. The Prince is shot by the attackers and dies as the Demon appears to him, uttering Tamara’s name. Guess who probably recruited the Tartars.

Meanwhile, Act II, back at the ranch, Prince Gudal is preparing for the wedding festivities. The Messenger brings bad news about Sinodel’s death. Tamara throws herself on his corpse, hearing now the Demon telling her gently not to cry. This aria, Ne plach dit’a, ne plach naprasna (Do not weep, child, do not waste your tears), was recorded in 1911 by the great Feodor Chaliapin.* Tamara is justifiably confused. The Demon continues with the dreamy Na vazdushnam akeane (On the ocean of the air…), eloquently making promises of wonderful things and delights. But Tamara starts from her trance and, no fool, requests that she be delivered to a convent.

Now in Act III our Demon hovers outside her tower in the convent. He's conflicted about, on the one hand, being immortal and unhappy and bored in contrast to, on the other, being mortal, imperfect, of course, but perhaps a better match for Tamara, who fervently prays within. He is falling for her. However, the Angel warns him again not to mess with Tamara’s love. But our Demon seems to think she is his already, so he gets on with it by entering Tamara’s cell. He tells her who he is in the aria Ja tot, katoramu vnimala (I am the one to whom you listened in the silence of the midnight hour).  He and Tamara go back and forth, but Tamara, worn down, seals their “love” with a kiss…well, to quote the synopsis I’m paraphrasing this from, “The angels are stunned.” You betcha!

In the Epilogue, the Angel restores Tamara’s soul to grace and tells the Demon to get lost. Which he does. In the Apotheosis, Tamara’s soul is borne up to Heaven as the angels sing. (Somewhere I have in me a piece on variations on the theme of Devils and Love with Women on earth in opera to discuss, six at least, one in each major operatic language, Демон representing Russian opera…maybe later this month).

  Anton Rubinstein

Anton Rubinstein

Anton Rubinstein (1829 – 1894) was an enormous musical talent and to some extent a force in the establishment of "Russian" music. For some background, whereas Michael Glinka wrote the first major operas in Russian for the Tsar, he spent much of his time studying music in Germany with Dehn in Berlin and traveling to France and Italy, soaking up operatic styles. Glinka greatly admired and actually met Bellini, for one. A Life for the Tsar (St. Petersburg, 1836) established the genre of Russian historical opera, later mastered by Mussorgsky; Ruslan and Lyudmilla (St. Petersburg, 1842) established the genre of Russian fantasy opera, later mastered by Rimsky Korsakov. These are two fine operas! Glinka died in 1857.

Alexander Dargomyzhsky, Glinka's rival of sorts, composed operas based on French sources also in the French style of Meyerbeer and Halévy, but later, by the time he composed his Rusalka (St. Petersburg, 1856), he followed Russian folk songs and harmonies; his even later The Stone Guest (completed by Cui and Rimsky Korsakov in 1872) anticipated Wagner’s endless melody. This other Rusalka is a fine opera too! Chaliapin was outstanding as the Miller in Rusalka.

Rubinstein, as well, studied with Dehn in Germany, but sought to give more structure and identity to Russian music. He founded the Russian Musical Society in 1859 and the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862. Yet he, like his predecessors, was criticized for leaning still toward the West. His most famous student, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who traveled frequently to Western Europe, ‘sinned’ also by sometimes choosing plots from Western sources (as for his three full length ballets and then, e.g., Friedrich Schiller for The Maid of Orleans).

But by this time one Vladimir Stasov, the powerful critic, had brought together the so called moguchaya kuchka (the Mighty Handful) of Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov, César Cui, Alexander Borodin, and Mily Balakirev, and, when he was sober, Modest Mussorgsky. Not only did the five work toward a ‘cleansing’ Russian music, they formally eschewed Western sources for their operas…well, Cui cheated often on this as far as subject matter and Rimsky Korsakov had a musical revelation on witnessing the complete Ring in St. Petersburg via Angelo Neumann’s touring group. Balakirev didn’t compose opera, Borodin died with Prince Igor unfinished. Igor Stravinsky emerged from this group to establish his own sound.

The Demon was the first Russian opera to be performed in London (Covent Garden, 1881), though not in Russian; Демон was also the first opera performed in Russian in London (1888). The opera premiered in the USA in San Francisco in 1922; Демон has not been performed by the Metropolitan Opera, even during the heyday before WWI and the years twixt, the 20s and 30s, when Feyodor Chaliapin ruled the stage. Though it would seem so, it is not true that the role of the Demon was written explicitly for Chaliapin: he was just shy of two years old when Демон premiered. But the young basso first sang the role the year before the composer died, becoming later one of its champions, as he would for many strong bass characters in French, Italian, and Russian operas.

  Chaliapin as the Demon

Chaliapin as the Demon

There are numerous recordings. Mine is the Wexford Festival Opera Production in 1994. Others exist, though. Always good to prep for these things.

*The late baritone Dimitri Hvorostovsky recorded the three arias mentioned above on a Philips CD, as well as other selections from the Russian literature.

Демон is performed in the Sosnoff Theater on the evening of Friday, July 27 at 8 p.m. and the afternoons of Sunday, July 29; Wednesday, August 1, Friday, August 3; and Sunday, August 5 at 2 p.m. The Opera Talk by conductor Leon Botstein is on Sunday, July 29, at noon in the theatre.

For tickets, please call 845.758.7900 or check out the website See you there!

Summer time! Next posting will be the beginning of Year 5 of OperaMetro! Time flies when you’re having fun…

Teatro Nuovo’s premiere season at Purchase College

Music master Will Crutchfield (WC), at the helm as General  and Artistic Director of Teatro Nuovo, realizes a dream years in the making. The program this season, titled The Dawn of Romantic Opera, opens with one of two performances of the original Venice version of Rossini’s heroic Tancredi on Saturday evening, July 28, followed on Sunday afternoon by one of two performances of Johann Simone Mayr’s Medea in Corintoto, then one more of each later in the week, ending with a late afternoon performance of Tancredi rifatto, a Tancredi with the alternate scenes written later to replace some original numbers, on Sunday, August 5. See the complete listing of events below.

  Will Crutchfield at the helm

Will Crutchfield at the helm

OperaMetro (OM) had the privilege of interviewing the Maestro, via email, about the new venture, as well as about the musical fare and its place in this premiere season. Also a privilege, OM spoke with bel canto tenor Santiago Ballerini, who sings the role of Argirio in Tancredi. This interview is posted on the top of the page Interviews.

OM: Hello Will! Thank you for agreeing to do this. Our annual chats are always a special part of the summer for me.

WC: My pleasure.

OM: Teatro Nuovo is an exciting venture, a dream come true for you. Through Teatro Nuovo, what advantages are there for you as an artist and mentor to young singers?

 Tamara Mumford sings the title role of Tancredi

Tamara Mumford sings the title role of Tancredi

WC: It's a dream come true in multiple ways. Our training program has long needed the chance to expand, to add spaces for more intensive work, to add faculty, and to focus longer on the young singers who come to us. We had developed a curriculum over the years at Caramoor and will continue using it now at Teatro Nuovo. The curriculum is unique, unlike any other in the vocal world, because it combines three elements which are usually found separately, but can have major results when applied together. These are: a) information about performing style from the long historical paper trail; b) a strong commitment to the idea that style is inseparable from physical technique; and c) a strong focus on the way singers line up their technical and artistic details in the period before there could be any influence from "microphone singing."

OM: I know from our previous conversations that you are very much the archeologist of vocal technique, that your knowledge of great singers from the past is encyclopedic.

WC: Thank you. But though these ancient recordings can tell us really revelatory things about the "how," they come too late to tell us "what" if we're talking about early 19th-century bel canto style. The paper trail can tell us infinite amounts about what singers did, but it provides only limited info about how. So they need to be taken together. To connect the "what" with the "how," you need time and you need one-on-one sessions with the young singers. That's where we've expanded the most.

  Amanda Woodbury in Rossini's  Tancredi

Amanda Woodbury in Rossini's Tancredi

OM: I see that on Wednesday, August 1 at 5:30, the Festival will present recordings of some of these voices.

WC: Yes. Also, in the Festival itself, we have a chance to do something not yet tried in the US, and barely begun in Europe - bringing period instruments and all the creativity of the Early Music movement to Romantic Italian opera.  That is going to be a revelation, I think. It's a quite different sound-world. This music is great on whatever instruments an orchestra uses, but using the ones the composers knew and played clarifies their writing fantastically.

OM: Rossini’s Tancredi is relatively well known, if not often performed with any frequency, even in concert, but Tancredi rifatto (the bits and pieces from alternate versions of Tancredi) are probably completely unknown. Why the bits and pieces?

WC: I have done Tancredi often, and every time, I've looked at the alternate pieces published in the appendix of the score, and thought "this belongs on stage!"  It's fantastic music, and Rossini wrote it to be part of the opera.  Now's the chance! 

OM: Among those bits and pieces added to or subtracted from Tancredi must be the famous “tragic” Ferrara ending, as opposed to the original Venice “happy” ending. What process did you use to arrive at a final performing version for Teatro Nuovo?

  Santiago Ballerini in  Tancredi

Santiago Ballerini in Tancredi

WC: Let me break that into two questions.  Our process was simple: on the Tancredi nights we are performing the original Venice version, plain and simple. For Tancredi rifatto, we repeat the opera knocking out eight pieces (some long, some short) and replace them with the substitutes Rossini wrote for at least four later occasions.

OM: Okay, so far so good.

WC: Beyond that it gets complicated. Tancredi has made the rounds with at least one of the substitute pieces before. Operas in Rossini's day were not meant to have a "final version" - they were meant to be adjustable. The switch to Voltaire's tragic ending was not even Rossini's idea - it came from a literary-minded nobleman in Ferrara, Luigi Lechi, who wrote the Italian verses and asked Rossini to set them. But since tragic endings were not yet standard fare in that repertory, the new ending was forgotten until Lechi's descendants made the manuscript available in the 1970s. I would say the upbeat ending fits perfectly with where Italian opera was in 1813 and the tragic ending fits perfectly with where Italian opera was going. The main point is that there is an opera-and-a-half of top-quality music here in Tancredi, and Teatro Nuovo's audiences will get to hear all of it if they come to both versions.

  Jennifer Rowley in Mayr's  Medea in Corinta

Jennifer Rowley in Mayr's Medea in Corinta

OM: I know Rossini had been busy composing before he tackled Tancredi, but this one is often portrayed as a qualitative leap artistically, without precedent. Briefly, in what ways was it a leap? Was it pretty much out of the blue, or did everyone who was to some degree astute see it coming? Was its newness part of its popularity or was it not so much new as so well done?

WC: What people could see coming was a potent new musical voice. But I don't think anybody could have anticipated the craze for Rossini's music that started with Tancredi. He took all the threads of Italian opera as it existed at the turn of the century (including Mayr) and re-wove them according to his personal sense of rhythm and proportion, and the result was electrifying. There is a simple directness and a sheer excitement that propelled Italian opera to become the truly popular artform that it was through the so-called "golden century" from Rossini to Puccini.

  Jakob Lehmann co-directs both operas with Will Crutchfield

Jakob Lehmann co-directs both operas with Will Crutchfield

OM: Since you bring him up, you’re doing Mayr’s Medea in Corinto. I could be wrong, but Medea in Corinto is not a title bandied about in even the most operatic of households, let alone a title one finds packed away in a stack of programs in the attic. Tancredi, sure. In what ways is Medea in Corinto the missing link between Mozart and Rossini?

WC: As for Medea and Mayr - it's one of those accidents of history.  In the 18th century, all operas were forgotten as audiences moved on from one sensational season to the next. But in the 19th century, we started to accumulate "classics." Later still, early 20th century, we started to look back in history and pick up "revivals," such as Handel, Vivaldi, and Gluck. Well, when the repertory was first being sorted out, Rossini was the big name in Italy.  Just a decade earlier, it would have been Mayr - he was everywhere, from Venice to Milan to Rome to Naples.  And he was a genius.  We're doing this score not because it is an interesting curiosity but because it is a fantastic opera.  And there is more where this one came from.

OM: I shall obtain a copy for sure. It’s what I do. I see too that Mayr’s Medea in Corinto, with a libretto by Felice Romani, premiered in Teatro San Carlo in Naples in November, 1813, the same year that Rossini’s Tancredi premiered at La Fenice in Venice on February 6. In with the new and out with the old. I recall that a young Donizetti was one of Mayr’s prized pupils in Bergamo. And I believe the story goes that the theater holding the only score of Mayr’s La Rosa bianca e la rosa rossa, in Genoa, the city of the premiere, refused to return them to the composer. Young Donizetti went to the theater on three separate performances and copied out the entire score from his scribbled notes and exceptional memory.*

One last observation: apart from the operas, assumed in concert, possibly semi-staged, and the various young artist and historical features, there is a Masterclass Are these efforts to educate an audience as well as the young artists? I see Jennifer Larmore, who, as I recall, sang for you at Caramoor. Elaborate?

WC:  Masterclasses are part work and part show. Whether it's for the general public or just the other singers in the group, the teacher who teaches in front of a room of observers is "performing" as well as "teaching."  And when that teacher has a big personality, as Larmore does, then it can be a lot of fun for the public to follow.

OM: Wait, just kidding, positively the last thing. For the record, I think the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College is a very user friendly venue, indoors, comfortable seating, air conditioned, and also really centrally located for your numerous supporters and audience members, especially my team from the East.

WC: Those are pretty great advantages right there!

OM: Thank you for your intelligent words.

WC: Thank you. See you there.

* My memory confirmation and elaborative details for this, like which Mayr opera was held hostage, come from Herbert Weinstock’s Donizetti, New York: Pantheon Books, 1963, pp. 13-14.

Photos: Will Crutchfield by Gabe Palaccio; Jakob Lehmann by Patrick Vogel; Santiago Ballerini by Gabriel Machary. Others provided by Beth Holub.

The performance schedule @ Teatro Nuovo, the Bel Canto Festival at Purchase College, entitled The Dawn of Romantic Opera is as follows:

Saturday, July 28 at 7 p.m. Rossini’s Tancredi, the original Venice version, starring Tamara Mumford, Amanda Woodbury, and Santiago Ballerini.**

Sunday, July 29 at 4 p.m. Mayr’s Medea in Corinto, starring Jennifer Rowley, Teresa Costillo, Derrek Stark, and Mingjie Lei.

Monday, July 30 at 7:30 p.m. Jennifer Larmore gives a public Masterclass.

Tuesday, July 31 at 7:30 p.m. Parlami d’amore (Speak to me of Love!). Bel Canto in popular Italian song.

Wednesday, August 1 at 5:30 p.m. Oldest Voices; Newest Voices: rare recordings of great singers of the past as well as Role Preparation by today’s soon to be great singers. Free to the public.

Thursday, August 2 at 7:30 p.m. Bel Canto Da Camera: Chamber music gems

Friday, August 3 at 7 p.m. Rossini’s Tancredi, the original Venice version, starring Tamara Mumford, Amanda Woodbury, and Santiago Ballerini.

Saturday, August 4 at 7 p.m. Mayr’s Medea in Corinto, starring Jennifer Rowley, Teresa Costillo, Derrek Stark, and Mingjie Lei.

Sunday, August 5 at 6 p.m. Rossini: Tancredi rifatto, starring Aleks Romano, Christine Lyons, and David Margulis.

Tickets range in price from $30 to $120. Purchase online at or phone the Performing Arts Center Box Office at 914.251.6200, Wednesday through Friday, noon to 6 p.m.

**The running time of my complete recording of Tancredi (BMG 3 CDs with Kasarova, Mei, Vargas, Cangemi, and Paulsen, conducted by Roberto Abbado) is a little over 2 hours, 46 minutes; not having a copy of Medea in Corinto is a lapse of taste I shall hasten to correct.

Hey look, it's summer! But the Performing Arts Center is really cool!! As is the Teatro Nuovo program! See you there!

Yulia Lysenko stars in Princeton’s Madama Butterfly

OperaMetro (OM) had the privilege of chatting with Ms. Yulia Lysenko (YL), who stars in the Princeton Festival’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly this summer. How I would love to be doing this interview with Yulia in person, strolling on the walkways under the shade of the great trees on the Princeton University campus, but, alas, our schedules didn’t permit it and, what’s more, it seems to have been raining, cold and damp since 2016, maybe longer. Outside wouldn’t work anyway.

  Yulia Lysenko stars as Cio-Cio-San in Princeton's  Butterfly

Yulia Lysenko stars as Cio-Cio-San in Princeton's Butterfly

OM: Thank you for agreeing to talk to me today!

YL: You’re quite welcome.

OM: Sorry about the gray skies and the damp…not to mention the pollen!

YL: No problem.

OM: You’re performing probably one of the most affecting, emotional roles in the soprano repertory. Tell me a bit about your preparation for the role, your ‘history’ with it.

YL: I’ve never had the opportunity to perform the whole opera on stage before, just separate arias and duets at festivals and concerts. But I have been working to develop the character of Cio-Cio-San for the last few years with my mentors and coaches Lyudmila Bozhko (Ukraine), Teresa Zylis-Gara (Poland), Kaludi Kaludov (Bulgaria), and lately with a great American pianist and a coach Anthony Manoli.

OM: Ah yes, Teresa Zylis-Gara. Marvelous singer! Saw her many times at the Metropolitan Opera.

YL: She is the consummate artist. But all my mentors and coaches have been wonderful.

OM: Compared to other roles you’ve performed in your career, are there vocal or dramatic demands that are unique to Cio-Cio-San? Meaning, what other roles in your experience (or perception) is the role of Cio-Cio-San most like in terms of its vocal and dramatic demands?

YL: For me all my heroines are emotionally rich, expressive, multifaceted, and very expressive with their emotions unlike Cio-Cio-San.

OM: Unlike Cio-Cio-San?

YL: Well, when you think about it, Cio-Cio-San is more often calm on the outside while the orchestra transmits the storm of emotions inside her soul. With this role it is hard for me to stay calm with all that’s going on in her world.

OM: Tell about your conception of Cio Cio San’s character, her personality, mannerisms, etc. Is she a fragile butterfly or a strong woman or a mixture of both? And what, in your conception, are the transforming moments for her in the opera?

YL: I am impressed with how the characters are transforming during the opera. In the first act, Cio-Cio-San is an innocent young girl who wants to love and be loved. In the second act, after three years of waiting for Pinkerton’s return, she is 18 years old, but already a strong young woman who is still blinded by love and believes in a happy future. The first transforming moment for me is from Sharpless’s phrase: “What would you do Madam Butterfly, if he never returns?”

OM: The orchestra is rather clear about the impact of Sharpless’s question.

YL: Indeed! After this line, there is some dramatic anticipation added to her character. But she is defiant, she still believes in a happy future. Only in the third act, when she meets Kate, Pinkerton’s American wife, everything becomes clear for Cio-Cio-San. This is the last transforming moment, as she says, “it is better to die with honor, than to live without honor.”

OM: Powerful opera, to be sure. For the record, Butterfly is an opera I cry at the end of, actually a lot of the way through it!

YL: Oh yes. Madama Butterfly is the opera where there are a lot of emotional moments.

OM: Are there parts of Butterfly in which you, the artist, the real person, find particularly difficult to get through just because the moment is so emotional?

YL:  Puccini’s orchestra so vividly depicts emotions of Cio-Cio-San, that sometimes it is difficult to restrain my own emotions. The hardest to do it is in the last scene with her son.

OM: Would you say it’s become a favorite role?

YL: (chuckles) Right now of course my favorite role is Cio-Cio-San, but in a few months if I sing a different role, like Mimi, it will become my favorite.

OM: What other roles lie in your immediate future?

YL: I’d like to perform many roles in the future such as Tosca, Tatyana, Nedda, Liu and others. These will fit my voice the best just now.

OM: You’re a young soprano in the title role of one of the greatest operas in the standard repertory, staged as part of an important summer music festival. I’m sure it’s been a journey for you. What advice would you give to younger, less experienced singers who hope someday to be on the stage as you are now? In other words, what are the steps you took to be here in Princeton this summer?

YL: I think it all depends on you to find the way to your dream, so I don’t have a special secret to success. I mean, of course you must love your profession. That goes without saying, and that love should show in everything you do. And you have to do everything possible: always do your best, work hard, visit master courses, record yourself, analyze, etc. At least those are my steps. One day fortune will smile and you will be ready.

OM: So tell me, dear Yulia, what are your favorite pastimes, interests or hobbies, things that make you smile or relaxed when you’re not working hard, studying, rehearsing, or performing?

YL: In my free time, I like to relax with my family outdoors. They are a source of great happiness in my life.

OM: I wish you the very best in your upcoming performances of Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly with the Princeton Festival. Give my best to Richard Tang Yuk and Steven LaCosse and the other members of the cast and orchestra.

YL: Will do, thank you!

The Princeton Festival’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is performed in the Matthews Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ, 08540, on the evening of Saturday, June 16 @ 7:30 p.m., and the afternoons of Sunday, June 24 and July 1 @ 3:00 p.m. Richard Tang Yuk, the Festival’s Artistic Director, will conduct; Steven LaCosse is the Stage Director. Other principals include Janara Kellerman as Suzuki, Matthew White as Pinkerton, and Paul La Rosa as Sharpless.

Tickets for Madama Butterfly may be purchased through the Festival’s website: the McCarter’s telephone number is 609.258.2787.

Support your local opera!!

Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven…gotta think positively!

Berkshire Opera Festival stages Rigoletto

The summer brings opera to the Berkshires on the stage of the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, MA, as the Berkshire Opera Festival presents Verdi’s classic Rigoletto, arguably one of the most popular operas in the entire repertory. Once again, OperaMetro (OM) has the privilege to chat with Jonathon Loy (JL) and Brian Garman (BG), the Festival’s Stage Director and Conductor, respectively; once again, it would be nice to do this up in Massachusetts, face to face, back and forth, but the constraints of time/space force the good old fashioned electronic communication mode (did I really say that?)

OM: Gentlemen, a pleasure as always.

JL: As always!

BG: As always!

OM: Now with Madama Butterfly and Ariadne auf Naxos successfully behind you both, you’re taking on Verdi’s Rigoletto. Given that it’s an older style of opera both musically and dramatically, are there any challenges in front of you to “sell” it to today’s audience? First, have either of you worked on Rigoletto before?

JL: I have both directed and assistant directed Rigoletto before. I’ve also been listening to since I was a little boy.

BG: This will be my third production of Rigoletto; in fact, Rigoletto was the piece that made me fall in love with opera in the first place when I was a teenager, and it planted the seeds for my deep love of Verdi.

OM: Wow, likewise here: in fact it was the first opera I did standing room at the Old Met, though it was not my first Verdi opera in the House. Always a deeply felt favorite. But it is of an older style than Butterfly or Ariadne, yes?

  Sebastian Catana sings Rigoletto

Sebastian Catana sings Rigoletto

JL: Yes, but it’s perfect in its own way. And as they say, “if it ain’t broke…” Brian and I, we aren’t really changing anything about how we go about producing opera, whether it’s Puccini, Strauss, or now middle Verdi.  We just hope that every year we learn a little more about what works best with our resources and implement small changes here and there as necessary. But the core of how we produce an opera remains the same.

BG: I agree with Jonathon. There are no significant changes we're making to way that we produce opera. When you start a company, there's always a little guesswork involved about the unknown elements, but your plans are based largely on past experience. I feel we were also a bit lucky to have guessed right about so many things.

  Maria Valdes is Gilda

Maria Valdes is Gilda

OM: (turning to the camera, an aside) Rigoletto, jester at the court of the Duke of Mantua, is despised because of the mean barbs he aims at the courtiers and their women, but, secretly, he has a young daughter Gilda, his only joy, whom he shields from the evils of the world. Monterone, a noble father, publically denounces the Duke for molesting his daughter; when his rage and indignation are mocked by Rigoletto, Monterone lays a father’s curse on him. Rigoletto is greatly unsettled by this. Without knowing her identity, the Duke sees Gilda as just another conquest, disguising himself as a student to make contact with her; in the very same evening the courtiers, thinking Gilda is Rigoletto’s mistress, kidnap her and give her to the Duke. Rigoletto vows to have the Duke assassinated, but Gilda, not wanting the Duke harmed, takes the fatal blow herself. Rigoletto discovers too late that the corpse in the sack he's about to dump in the river is his daughter, not the Duke. Monterone’s curse comes true. (back to the interview) Tell me, given the story of Rigoletto, has your conception of the opera been influenced by the past year’s “Me Too” movement, to name one? Have contemporary politics and social awareness had an impact on your take on Rigoletto?

  Jonathan Tetelman is the Duke of Mantua

Jonathan Tetelman is the Duke of Mantua

JL: Certainly. Everything that happens in today’s world, everything that happens to me, everything that I experience, everything that I observe influences my productions. This should be true for almost any stage director today, I imagine. While Rigoletto is most certainly about Monterone’s curse, my production highlights the most topical elements of a woman’s navigation in a man’s world and the inherent abuses of power. I do not believe the Duke is anything other than a selfish, misogynistic, sexually greedy man. Gilda does not move him in any positive way; once he has had her, that’s it. I believe this is also made clear in how Verdi writes for the Duke musically. Compared to the other characters he only sings in an “old fashioned” style, that is: recitative, cavatina, cabaletta. And what the Duke does to Gilda awakens her to some extent, but in all the wrong ways.

  Maya Lahyani is Maddalena

Maya Lahyani is Maddalena

Our staging will speak to the issue: All male characters will be in black or shades of black and gray, all female characters will be in white.  The sets will employ all black and white palettes contained in what is essentially a three-sided muslin light box. The starkness will allow the story to speak for itself, recognizing that some things really are black and white.

OM: Getting back to the music and its place in Verdi’s maturation, Brian, why is Rigoletto special?

BG: Each time I return to it I'm amazed at how innovative it is for its time, especially in terms of the way Verdi treated the orchestra and structural elements of the opera.

OM: One senses a departure from Italian opera scores prior to 1850 certainly. Looking forward, in what ways was Rigoletto Italy’s “music of the future,” to borrow Wagner’s phrase from just about the same time?

BG: When Verdi began his career, the operatic tradition in Italy -- largely established by Rossini -- was very conservative, musically speaking. In other words, there were orchestrations that served only to support the voice, heavy ornamentation of the vocal lines, even arias from other operas inserted a singer's request, and so forth. But Verdi was such a man of the theater that he was interested in music as drama, and had no use for these old-fashioned conventions. So he was always trying to transform them, make them more cohesive dramatically. We see a lot of these transformations in Rigoletto. Take the woodwind introduction to the recitative before Gilda's Caro nome in Act I, Scene II:  in the early 1800s, there was no use of "families" of instruments in Italian opera as we consider them today. This was an early example of a composer treating the woodwind section as a self-sufficient entity. Earlier in that Scene, we also see the innovative stroke of giving the dark melody of the Rigoletto-Sparafucile duet to the orchestra, leaving the voices to converse above it, rather than sing an old fashioned vengeance duet. The once obligatory off-stage band is used here for a real dramatic purpose in Act I, Scene I to illustrate the vulgarity of the Duke's court, and in fact, the first scene is, without precedent, constructed as a single organism from beginning to end. Verdi himself said he conceived the entire opera as a series of duets, and, indeed, there is only one conventional "double-aria," (for the Duke in Act II, Scene I). Neither solo, Gilda’s Caro nome or Rigoletto’s Pari siamo is structured like that. And this is the only opera in Verdi's output not to use large ensembles as act finales, apart from the ensemble that concludes Scene I of Act I.

OM: I always ask this question to you both: what part of Rigoletto is the most emotional for you? And why?

JL: Easy: watching Gilda’s journey is heart wrenching throughout, and the final scream from Rigoletto, Ah, la maledizione!, the orchestra's crashing final chords with the whaling tympani, his world comes crashing down around him as his daughter dies in his arms, with no one to blame but himself.

BG: This is difficult, because there are so many. But yes, probably the single most striking moment for me is when Rigoletto discovers that the dying person in the sack is actually Gilda. This is an utterly stunning moment -- out of the one-and-a-half billion (at that time) people in the world who could be in that sack, the only person Rigoletto knows it can't be (because he sent her earlier to Verona) is the person it actually turns out to be.  He set this whole scheme in motion out of a desire to avenge his daughter's dishonor and shame, and she ends up paying for it with her life.  And coming at the end of the storm -- with thunder in the low strings, lightning in flute and piccolo, and the men's chorus imitating wind -- Verdi's setting of this moment is breathtaking.

OM: As a father of young women, I find the opera very difficult to sit through, particularly the duet at the end of Act II (as written). And, of course, the end. Heart wrenching. Wotan's Farewell to Brünnhilde in Act III of Wagner’s Die Walküre is another.

Gentlemen, I wish you the best for Rigoletto in August!! A pleasure as always talking to you.

BG: And to you as well.

JL: Yes.

Other principals include Joseph Barron as Sparafucile and John Cheek as Monterone.

Photos were picked from the Berkshire Opera Festival’s website.

The Berkshire Opera Festival’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto is performed on the stage of the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, MA, on the afternoon of Saturday, August 25 at 1:00 p.m., the evenings of Tuesday and Thursday, August 28 and 31, respectively, at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets may be purchased at the company’s website  

Yo! Support your local opera! Berkshire Opera Festival's third season!

Spring, like really spring!