Cardiff: `Tis the season for famous baritones to take on new challenges at the Welsh National Opera.
Last week Bryn Terfel sang his first Hans Sachs in Wagner`s ‘Die Meistersinger’; now Simon Keenlyside has added the title role of Verdi`s Rigoletto to his repertory. Both chose a first-rate company that has the advantage of being more than 100 miles from the high-profile glare of London.
Debuting as the deformed court jester Friday night (with a leg brace, instead of a hump), Keenlyside radiated his trademark sharp intelligence and nervous energy, creating a fascinating character study that avoided the usual grand opera stereotypes. His venom, his rage, his paternal devotion and his final heartbreak — all these were vividly dramatized and freshly potent.
Though he lacks the force-of-nature-sized voice ideal for the role, Keenlyside summoned unexpected reserves of power for Rigoletto`s fierce outbursts, especially in his upper register, and caressed the vocal line with tenderness in his three duets with his daughter, Gilda.
He was fortunate to be partnered in those moments with Sarah Coburn, a fine lyric soprano who sang with sparkling purity and sensitive phrasing. As his employer and nemesis, the Duke of Mantua, tenor Shaun Dixon — substituting for an ailing Gwyn Hughes Jones — struggled to project a smooth vocal line. Bass David Soar was suitably thuggish and menacing as the assassin-for-hire Sparafucile, while mezzo-soprano Leah-Marian Jones made a strong impression as his sister, Maddalena, singing with brash energy and voluptuous sound.
The production by James Macdonald, new in 2002, transposes the action from Renaissance Italy to 20th-century Washington, D.C. Sadly, it turns out to be surprisingly believable to turn the sexually licentious duke into a U.S. president who seduces Gilda in a room just off the Oval Office (think Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky).
Pablo Heras-Casado conducted the orchestra in a performance that started off bumpily, with coordination problems between players and singers. But the final two acts went more smoothly and the music gained steadily in dramatic tension through the glorious Act 4 quartet up to the shattering conclusion.