Saturday, December 13, 2008

Opera review: Yuan, Shagimuratova stand out in 'Rigoletto'

By Greg Stepanich

WEST PALM BEACH — A moving portrayal of a man done in by his desire for revenge and a soprano of great promise added distinction to a compelling evening of entertainment as the Palm Beach Opera opened its 46th season Friday at the Kravis Center with Verdi's Rigoletto.

This is a production that looks good, sounds crisp, moves along smartly, and was distinguished on opening night by two lead portrayals: Chen-Ye Yuan as Rigoletto and Albina Shagimuratova as Gilda. While the other vocal forces, including an only intermittently successful James Valenti as the Duke of Mantua, were something of a mixed bag, overall this Rigoletto does right by Verdi, and has the optimal blend of pathos and suspense that this tuneful perennial requires.

Yuan was an ideal Rigoletto, building a wholly sympathetic, if fatally flawed, character whose labor in the service of a corrupt nobility ends up destroying the only aspect of his life that he cares about. From the outset, his voice, a tightly focused baritone, made itself distinct, and with the Act I duet beginning Deh non parlare al misero, made itself tender.

He commanded attention at all times on stage, using his body effectively to underline motive as he moved from complicity in the debased games at court to self-debasement under the spell of his thirst for retribution. His singing drove Act II, as it should, with a passionate, almost strained Cortigiani, vil razza dannata as its centerpiece, and through good singing with Shagimuratova in the duet Tutte le feste all tiempo, particularly at the words, Piangi, piangi fanciulla.

Yuan's voice, while powerful, is not huge, and at times in that same act it lacked a certain heft and sounded on the edge of fraying. But his musical conception of the role was always intelligent and clearly thought out, and his essentially fine singing and good acting made Rigoletto a complex and memorable character.

But the highest musical point of the evening came from the singing of Shagimuratova, a Russian coloratura whose list of leading houses in which she is soon to appear suggests she is on the brink of a major career. Her work Friday night indicated why that is: This is a big voice, beautifully colored, and at ease in every part of her considerable range. She demonstrates an impressive command of that voice, too, exhibiting an admirable control of dynamics that allows her to go from all-out to whisper in exemplary service of the text, the music and the drama.

Her Caro nome, the big showoff Act I soprano test piece, stopped the action cold as the audience listened to her navigate this florid, vocally treacherous aria. But she can sing it, and sing it well, and most importantly, she made it sound not like a final exam for which she has labored prodigiously, but natural, like the spontaneous expression of a sheltered young woman in the first destabilizing throes of romance.

If there was a slightly spread-out quality to the highest notes, they were more than compensated for by her smooth, almost invisible shifting into the highest half-octave of her register, and the sheer musicianship she brought to her overall performance.

As the Duke of Mantua, Valenti had an intermittent night. He has a muscular, youthful tenor, but his singing sounded labored most of the time Friday night, particularly in Act III's La donna e mobile, in which he took the final high B in falsetto, which came as little surprise considering the trouble he sounded like he was having just before it. He was better in Act I, with a decent Questa o quella, but later on in that same act, when it came to the E il sol dell'anima duet with Gilda, his higher notes sounded stretched and uncomfortable.

On the other hand, Valenti was effective on stage, full of the requisite bravado and caddishness, and when his voice was cooperating, as in the later moments of Act III, when he's drifting off to sleep in Sparafucile's inn, there was a tantalizing glimpse of how in better throat shape he could have shared the opera equally with Yuan and Shagimuratova.

Of the other voices, Jennifer Hines' very dark mezzo lent an attractive, sexy quality to Maddalena, and the Russian bass Grigory Soloviov contributed a Sparafucile that was strongly sung and acted. David Young was unfortunately weak in his brief appearances as Monterone, most crucially in the first act, when half of all his lines, which present the curse on which the drama turns, were drowned out by the orchestra. The men of the chorus sang with precise diction and energy (and did nice work as the wind of the Act III storm), but were often lightweight, especially in the Act II confrontation with Rigoletto.

Allen Charles Klein's set, designed for the Cincinnati Opera, is a beauty, and Bernard Uzan's direction is smart and sensible. Uzan has devised some good pieces of stage business, too, such as the moment in Act I when Rigoletto first understands the reality of the curse, and behind the see-through scrim the courtiers slowly raise their arms in an ominous echo of Monterone's own outstretched limb.

Bruno Aprea's musical direction was first-class, with laudable attention to the brisk tempi of this Verdian period and to the composer's breakthrough moments like the prelude of Act III — so simple, but so moving — and he proved a marvelous accompanist to his singers. The orchestra itself had a couple off moments, including the markedly out-of-tune brass in the opening bars, but overall it was a flexible, excellent ensemble.

Rigoletto continues through Monday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Todd Thomas is Rigoletto in tonight's performance, Hanan Allatar is Gilda and Eric Margiore is the duke. Yuan, Shagimuratova and Valenti return Sunday afternoon, and tonight's cast is back on Monday. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. today, and at 2 p.m. Sunday and Monday. Tickets: $23-$115, which can be had by calling the Kravis at 832-7469, or by visiting or


Anonymous said...

Excellent review, I agree with you wholeheartedly!! The soprano was just terrific. World Class!! I found Aprea's account to be a little rushed but clean. Will you review the second cast? I heard it last evening and it was a much better reading from the Orchestra. And, the tenor Eric Margiore was a huge improvement over the crass singing of James Valenti.

Greg Stepanich said...

Thanks much for your comment.

We plan to review both casts for subsequent productions, but we weren't able to do so this time, more's the pity since you said good things about Eric Margiore.

You may be right, too, about Aprea being a little rushed; the thing I liked about his zippy interp was that it gave the opera kind of a fresh-off-the-stocks feel to it.

Anyway, we'll get both casts for Norma. See you at the opera!