Berkshire Opera Festival singers, musicians deliver high-quality 'Rigoletto'

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A regional start-up opera festival faces a difficult artistic decision that can have a direct impact upon its future viability: Should it choose to mount an intimate work best suited to its limited scope, or should it go for broke with an operatic warhorse that is more likely to fill seats but may lie beyond its capabilities? The Berkshire Opera Festival decided to throw the dice on the latter with its production of Giuseppe Verdi's "Rigoletto," with generally positive results.

General Director Jonathon Loy gave a short speech to the audience before Saturday's matinee, wherein he indicated that the vast majority of the festival's resources are donor-provided. This helped to explain the minimalist set, which consisted of three bare walls interrupted by two doors framed with dimmable strip lighting (disturbingly incongruous for a story set in the 16th century). Opera is an experience of both sight and sound, and the heavy dependence upon the audience's visual imagination placed an inordinate burden upon the singers and direction to take up the slack.

That said, the BOF's target audience consists mainly of opera lovers, and Mr. Loy correctly lavished his limited funds on acquiring the best possible performing talent rather than providing the opulent sets and scores of supernumeraries employed by richer companies. It was a smart move: The cast and orchestra delivered an unexpectedly high-quality performance. Romanian-born baritone Sebastian Catana has considerable experience in the title role and sang with power and grace in a character he wore like a comfortable old pair of shoes. Maria Valdes, as the tormented jester's virginal daughter, Gilda, represented a fine piece of casting with her tenderly pure voice (more about this later). Tenor Jonathan Tetelman as the licentious Duke projected plenty of virility and swagger, and all of the lead characters displayed a vocal competence that could grace any opera house in the world (as in fact, they have).

High points in the production that, alone, merited the price of admission, include the first act duet "Deh, non parlare al misero," in which Rigoletto recalls his deceased wife to his daughter. The pairing of Mr. Catana's gruff baritone with Ms. Valdes' crystalline soprano elicited shouts of approval from the audience, as did another duet, "E il sol dell'anima," an intimate love song between the Duke and Gilda.

Also worthy of mention is Mr. Tetelman's treatment of "La donna e mobile," possibly the most famous aria in all opera, which has become a shamelessly overwrought tenor showpiece. Instead of resorting to the expected bombast, Mr. Tetelman instead chose to act the aria as well as sing it, employing a more subdued and contemplative approach that revealed the contradictory subtext of the lyrics.

Acting is indeed central to great opera, and here supporting cast member Maya Lahyani as the sultry man-trap Maddalena is a standout. She infused her character with a delicious sexuality that made her seduction of the Duke all the more believable, and her husky mezzo voice juxtaposed with Gilda's pure tones made the quartet "Bella figlia dell' amore" (accompanied by Rigoletto and the Duke) a recording-worthy gem.

A competent chorus of black-clad male courtiers doubled as a piece of moving scenery under Mr. Loy's innovative direction. The orchestra was thoroughly professional, and there was not a weak character in any of the supporting cast.

All in all, this year's BOF offering demonstrates that it possesses the talent and imagination to produce fine work. With more funds at its disposal, it could become one of the country's more notable regional festivals.



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