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 www.berkshireoperafestival.org  

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