Review: Resonance Works – Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto’

Company Is Closing 9th Season with a Fine Production of the Tuneful Classic

By George B. Parous

Resonance Works overcame a glitch or two last night, in the first of two performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s classic Rigoletto, and gave the audience (which should have been larger) a stellar orchestral performance and a few brilliant vocal displays. What could have turned into a major glitch, but fortunately didn’t, was that baritone Andrew Cummings, singer of the title role, succumbed to our local sudden blasts of pollen. Not accustomed to the area’s annual ten-day cycle(s) of winter turning to spring turning to summer, he was slightly indisposed. What is a conductor and producer to do under such circumstances? It’s easy; simply scour the area for another baritone capable of singing the role from the orchestra pit, while the onstage one silently mouths the singing and takes care of the acting.

Sergio Martinez as the hired hit-man, Sparafucile (L) and Andrew Cummings as the cursed Rigoletto

Luckily, baritone Raymond Blackwell, wearer of many hats in the musical community of Pittsburgh for over twenty-five years, was available to do just that. When Mr. Cummings felt he was reaching a point in the score where his voice might fail him, a cleverly arranged signal system started Mr. Blackwell’s voice to seamlessly take over. Actually, Mr. Cummings displayed a resonant voice capable of handling most of the part himself, so assistance was only sporadically needed; and between the two baritones, the title role didn’t suffer vocally. It’s not the first time such an arrangement was necessary in an operatic performance, and it certainly won’t be the last. In the acting of the role, Cummings gave Rigoletto a much welcomed, slightly higher level of dignity than the role usually gets.

Maria Sensi Sellner and the instrumentalists in the orchestra turned in a sterling performance. It was a well rehearsed reading of a difficult and unrelenting score. From the foreboding overture to the crashing finale, all sections played as one singular, sonic wave on which the singers surfed. The score includes some of Verdi’s most effective orchestration, and no delicate nuance, no thrilling crescendo, was missed by the conductor and her players. Only in a spot or two was the volume too loud for one or two of the singers, but overall it easily ranked among the very best orchestral performances of the year. The acoustic properties of the Carnegie Music Hall, Carnegie, proved ideal for the tone of the orchestra, and a most thunderous ovation greeted them at the final curtain.

Gilda (Maria Brea) looking the worse for wear after first and last night on the town, and her worried father, Rigoletto (Andrew Cummings)

There was an excellent array of singing actors on the stage as well. Soprano Maria Brea, a native of Caracas, Venezuela, took the role of Gilda for the first time on any stage, and also made her first appearance in Pittsburgh. Her voice is gloriously luxurious, well developed and lovely throughout its range, and well suited to the demands of the part. Her warm tones rang out with freshness and clarity, and she acted the role of the naïve, hapless and doomed young lady with a most becoming, subtle innocence. At the other end of the spectrum were Sergio Martinez, as Sparafucile, the sinister hitman, and Timothi Williams, as Maddalena, his sister and partner in crime. Martinez possesses a bass voice of cavernous resonance and carrying power, and he acted the part with fitting discretion. Ms. Williams sang with a mezzo-soprano voice of excellent quality and quantity, and made the listener wish that Verdi hadn’t saved her vivid character for the last act only.

L to R – Maria Brea (Gilda in disguise), Sergio Martinez (Sparafucile) and Timothi Williams (Maddalena), near the opera’s tragic twist
The ladies can’t resist a Duke (Jeremy Brauner)

As the Duke, tenor Jeremy Brauner, another newcomer to Pittsburgh, seemed to have misjudged the size of the theater, and sang throughout at full throttle. This made any display of a sustained legato virtually impossible, and he was compelled to chop phrases for breath in order to endure such a do-or-die level of volume. His method caused an audible break between registers, and quite literally caught up with him in the end, when the final note he sang was forced much off the pitch. There seemed to be a voice of quality at the core of his singing, but he’ll need to tone it down considerably to make his singing musically enjoyable.

Robert Frankenberry (Borsa) and Patrick McNally (Marullo) do not approve

The opera abounds with small roles that add up to a great ensemble, and allows for the hearing of a number of fine voices. There seems to be nothing on the operatic stage that Robert Frankenberry can’t do, as he proved again last night, in the role of Borsa. Patrick McNally, as Marullo, Graham Fandrei, as Monterone, and Powell Brumm, as Count Ceprano, were other standouts. But Jenna Ziccardi (Countess Ceprano), Thespina Christulides (Giovanna), Sarah Austin (Page) and Andrew Bloomgarden (Usher) all lent their talents in a way that each earned notice, and each deserved a share of the long and loud applause at curtain call time at the opera’s conclusion.

As for the reimagining of the opera to early 1930’s Hollywood by Stage Director Mo Zhou, this was accomplished through Liz Rishel’s wonderful costumes, a fairly clever reproduction of a large motion picture camera, and (I assume) some adjustments to the English supertitles (courtesy of Lyric Opera of the North) projected above the stage. The last is a guess – I never look at these annoying, but today, inescapable – distractions. Rigoletto has been on opera stages since 1851, and a few tweaks in its staging do no serious or extreme damage to the composer’s concept.

The 3:00 matinee tomorrow, May 22, is the only remaining performance. The show is well worth the admission and maybe dinner in the lovely Carnegie area, so visit Resonance Works for tickets.

The Production Team for Rigoletto –

Conductor & Producer, Maria Sensi Sellner; Stage Director, Mo Zhou; Production Manager & Technical Director, Brennan Sellner; Lighting Designer, MK Barber; Scenic Designer, Jess Fitzpatrick; Costume Designer, Liz Rishel; Stage Manager, Kate Johnson; Rehearsal Pianist, Sara Chiesa; Choreographer, Nathan Hart; Cover Conductor/Pianist, Walter Morales; Assistant Stage Managers, Madison Figueroa-Diaz & Megan Franco; Master Electrician, Megan Bresser; Electrician, Lauren Holmes; Carpenter, Jesse Davis; Paint Charge, Marjorie Rishel

Photography by Alisa Innocenti

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