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Lyric Opera offers sterling cast in 'Rigoletto'

By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

8:51 AM EDT, May 19, 2013

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Lyric Opera Baltimore is wrapping up its comfort-food season with Verdi’s stirring drama of love, nastiness and misplaced loyalties, “Rigoletto.” The staging looked a little square and economical Friday night at the Modell Performing Arts Center, but it often sounded splendid; Sunday’s matinee ought to be even better.

In the two short years since it emerged from the ruins of the longtime Baltimore Opera Company, which folded its tent in 2009, Lyric Opera Baltimore has taken a purposely conservative path, offering standard works in mostly traditional productions.

Whether the strategy will put the new organization on solid footing for the long haul, let alone do anything to attract a more demographically diverse crowd, remains to be seen. But if Lyric Opera Baltimore can continue assembling casts like the one for “Rigoletto,” it will certainly give its audiences an awfully good reason to keep coming back.

And if a company is going to emphasize voices over, say, offbeat directorial concepts or eye-popping sets, "Rigoletto" is a great choice, since it requires singers with great pipes and the musicality to make Verdi's inspired score truly soar. That's what Lyric Opera delivered Friday. 

In the title role of the hunchbacked court jester who loses his moral compass and his daughter, Stephen Powell was a commanding presence. His tone turned dry under pressure, but there was consistent expressive force in the baritone’s vocalism and a communicative intensity that made the deeply flawed character affecting.

Bryan Hymel, the fast-rising tenor who has been enjoying triumphs in New York, London and elsewhere since his first Lyric Opera Baltimore last season, gave a persuasive portrayal of the lecherous Duke. His voice, with its bright, open sound and fast vibrato, sent an electric charge through the theater.

The singing would have been even more satisfying, though, had Hymel added subtler dynamic nuances here and there. Like most of today’s tenors, he sang both verses of the ever-popular aria “La donna e mobile” at the same volume and with the same phrasing inflections.

As Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda, who is too smitten with the Duke to understand just how cruelly he has abused her, Norah Amsellem revealed a rich, flexible soprano and put a keen intensity into every phrase. She sculpted her lines in the death scene with particular eloquence, enhanced by exquisite pianissimo tones.

Colorful contributions came from the rest of the cast, especially Matthew Trevino as the coldblooded hit man Sparafucile (he also doubled as Monterone, sounding a little less impressive hurling curses); and Jennifer Feinstein as Maddalena, Sparafucile’s sister, who, in this production, turns out to have a vicious streak of her own.

One of the company's strengths so far has been the attention paid to even the briefest of supporting roles. On this occasion, that meant firm singing from Anais Naharro-Murphy (Countess Ceprano and the Page), Natalie Conte (Giovanna), Kevin Wetzel (Marullo), Jimi James (Ceprano) and Ta'u Pupu'a (Borsa). The chorus made a cohesive effort.

The added stage business for Maddalena was the most unusual idea from stage director John Hoomes, who otherwise kept the action flowing routinely through the old-fashioned, clunky sets and allowed too much cliched gesturing from the singers.

In the pit, the Baltimore Symphony had a bumpy night, yet proved to be a valuable asset in the end. And although conductor Richard Buckley had his share of troubles keeping singers and orchestra on the same page, his impassioned approach ensured that the lasting power of Verdi’s score could be keenly felt.

“Rigoletto” will be performed at 3 p.m. today
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