L'elisir d'Amore

Ron Loyd - Rigoletto
Sarah Callinan - Gilda
Brian Cheney - The Duke
Michael Reder - Sparafucile
Maria Elena Armijo - Maddalena
Michael Scarcelle - Count Ceprano
Tynan Davis - Countess Ceprano
Peter Scott Drackley - Matteo Borsa
Michael Ventura - Count Monterone
Juan José Ibarra - Marullo

Salt Marsh Opera pleases with performance of Verdi's 'Rigoletto'

By Milton Moore

Westerly — Salt Marsh Opera doubled up on winning hands of recent seasons by bringing back baritone Ron Loyd and tenor Brian Cheney to dominate the stage Friday in a high-voltage performance of Verdi's "Rigoletto."

The production at the George Kent Performance Hall, to be repeated at 3 p.m. Sunday, is the 12-year-old company's most ambitious yet, with a visually sumptuous set and costumes and clever use of the hall's space limits.

But it was the vocal power and characterizations by Loyd, in the title role, and Cheney, as the Duke, coupled with the emotional turbulence and dramatic hammer blows of Verdi's great score, that carried the night. Music Director Simon Holt led the 25-piece orchestra through the musical rage, sorrow, pathos and horror to the gripping finale: Rigoletto cradling his mortally wounded daughter Gilda, stabbed during an emotionally and sonically roof-rattling thunderstorm, begging her not to die, as the winds of fate swirl.

This is the red meat of Italian opera, and it was served up steaming in Westerly.

Both male leads were returning after starry turns here in recent seasons, Cheney in 2008 as Edgardo in "Lucia di Lammermoor," and Loyd in 2010 as Dulcamara in "L'elisir D'amore."

Physically compelling in his characterization of the hunchback court jester Rigoletto, Loyd mined dramatic material at every turn, whether cowering, raging or pouring affection on Gilda, sung by soprano Sarah Callinan. His seething musing on his fate, to be mocked daily by those who stand straight and tall, "Pari siamo," came across as a Shakespearean soliloquy writ larger than life.

Rigoletto is one of opera's most complex characters, a man of fear and resentment, yet also nobility and love. These elements are revealed in his duets with Gilda (Verdi's baritone/soprano, father/daughter duets are among his finest). The complexity of the character was portrayed in all of its subtleties Friday in the long series of arias and duets when the distraught Rigoletto finally finds the missing Gilda, swept off her feet and into the Duke's bedchambers, despite all of Rigoletto's efforts to shelter her from court life and the womanizing Duke.

Here, soprano Callinan was at her best, expressive and full of pathos in "Tutte le feste al tempio," trying to explain away her shame as the desolate Loyd sat far from her, hunched over, clutching his knees and rocking like a forlorn child. His heart melts and he accepts her tears — "piangi" (much like the garden scene in "La Traviata") — in a heart-rending pairing of characters and voices.

The lithe and girlish Callinan was well-cast as Gilda, but in the live acoustic of this voice-friendly hall, she oversang a bit in the early scenes, especially in her big aria "Caro nome," when it seemed she was aiming for key cadences rather than singing to them, though she gave the aria a lovely, subtly shaded half-voice finish. In the hair-raising final act, as the musical and emotional storm exploded onstage, she was vocally dominating, spot-on and flashed the lightning atop the ensembles.

And how welcome is tenor Brian Cheney to this stage? We hear few tenors in these parts so confident and powerfully at ease in a high Verdian tessitura such as the Duke's. With an actor's stage presence and with a ringing tone unaffected at the top, Cheney seemed immune to challenges of technique to sing key arias with full interpretation and artistry, especially his soaring love vow to Gilda "E il sol dell'anima" and his heartfelt and nuanced "Parmi veder le lagrime." His ardent farewell scene with Gilda, "Addio, addio," the lovers clinging tight, was hot in every sense.

The 25-piece orchestra was arrayed along the right wall of the hall to open up a theater-in-the-round effect for action. Perhaps because of this, there were frequent breakdowns of ensemble between the singers and orchestra, especially in the big choruses. The delicate chorus "Zitti, zitti" was mercifully cut, and only in Act 3, when the spare, exposed voices in the orchestra wandered astray from Loyd's fervent pleading for Gilda with the courtiers, was Holt unable to right the ship promptly.

Director Nathaniel Merchant, who directed "L'elisir D'amore" here, used the hall's peculiar space expertly. The two-story set, rising high where the Chorus of Westerly is usually arrayed, was both detailed and darkly atmospheric, and Merchant spread courtiers and dramatic moments out into the wide aisle judiciously.

At times, an enraged Loyd would claw his way through the hall as the very embodiment of rage. Singing exits and entrances spread the action, none better than when bass Michael Reder, in the role of the assassin Sparafucile, walked down the center aisle and out of the hall while holding that famous low F as he sang "Sparafucile."

Rich in timbre and powerful in the darkly delicious role, Reder headed a fine cast of supporting principals. In the small, but crucial role of the Duke's condemned enemy Monterone, bass-baritone Michael Ventura's shattering curses were threatening indeed. As Sparafucile's seductive sister Maddalena, used by the assassin to lure male victims to their dooms, mezzo-soprano Maria Elena Armijo both looked the temptress and was able to project well in the ensembles (no mean feat) even while being groped on a table top by the Duke.

It all added up to a searing evening of opera theater. The vivid stage presences and vocal aplomb of Loyd and Cheney, the darkly ominous production and well-paced, mounting horror, and the musical thrills of the final act not only conveyed the full weight of this most dramatic of operas but was also another step forward for Salt Marsh Opera.

You'll be seduced by 'Rigoletto,' too.

By Channing Gray

Salt Marsh Opera, a little company from Stonington, Conn., is doing big things in Westerly this weekend.  The troupe, now in its 12th season, put on a terrific "Rigoletto" Friday night at the George Kent Performance Hall on High Street, with a wonderfully moving performance by New York baritone Ron Loyd as the hunchbacked jester.

As encore performance is slated for Sunday at 3.  Try not to miss it, for it's some of the finest opera you are apt to find in these parts.

Actually, the whole cast is top notch, starting with soprano Sarah Callinan as Rigoletto's innocent daughter Gilda, and tenor Brian Cheney, who is giving a commanding showing as the lecherous Duke of Mantua.

This is a fully staged production that has to be shoehorned into the former Immaculate Conception Church.  Nathaniel Merchant's stage direction had singers trooping up and down the aisles and wandering among the audience; while Scott Aronow's elaborate double-decker set with spiral staircase more than fills the back of the building.  Conductor Simon Holt presides over a crack 25-piece orchestra spread along one side of the hall. 

But even with cramped quarters, the production packs a punch.  And a lot of that has to do with the sizzling chemistry between Loyd and Callinan.

Let's face it; Rigoletto is a rat, a really nasty guy whose only redeeming feature is the love that he holds for his daughter.  He takes pleasure in taunting the husbands of women seduced by the Duke, which brings down a curse on him - something Rigoletto takes very seriously.

And why not?  He is tricked into helping abduct Gilda, who falls prey to the Duke's advances, and from there things spiral out of control.  In the end, of course, a lovesick Gilda sacrifices herself for the Duke, even though he's an even bigger rat than her father.

This Verdi classic may not seem totally believable, but in Loyd's hands it's quite touching.  He's able to squeeze every bit of emotion from the part, to make us feel the pain of a man we really can't stand.

He and Callinan teamed up for some great duet work in Act III, when she tells how she was seduced by the womanizing Duke posing as a poor student.  And Callinan sounded scrumptious in her famed aria "Caro nome," where she was able to pull back to a delicate pianissimo at the conclusion of the piece.

As for the Ohio-based Cheney, who has sung before with Salt Marsh, he got real physical when putting the moves on his women, during the first kiss with Gilda and his tussle on a picnic table with Tynan Davis' (ed. actually Maria Elena Armijo's) Maddalena, sister of the assassin, Sparafucile.

This is a pretty traditional staging of the opera, with sumptuous period costumes from Trinity Rep's Marilyn Salvatore.  But for standard treatment the product is as good, if not better, than anything I've seen locally.  Catch it if you can.  Tickets are available at the door.

By Robert C. Pollack
Special to the Times

OLD SAYBROOK – Wow!

That blandishly unoperatic word captures what happened at the Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center last Friday night in two and a half brilliant hours in the Salt Marsh Opera's riveting production of Giuseppe Verdi's "Rigoletto."

Baritone Ron Loyd played the lead role and turned a pathetic hunchback and court jester railing at the world into a cursed but compelling figure whose love for his daughter, Gilda, portrayed with passion and pathos by soprano Sarah Callinan, overcame his seething anger and self hate.

A series of duets between them, some of the most famous of Verdi's arias, soared and shimmered. Callinan – betrayed by the womanizing Duke of Mantua who won her virginal heart by posing as a poor student – made the role her own. Her pure and melodic voice ripped through the high notes and brought repeated bravas from the packed house.

The Duke – often referred to as the co-lead in what many regard as Verdi's masterpiece – was sung by tenor Brian Cheney – Rigoletto's boss – with artistry and power. His repeated mockery of women and contempt for their emotions and need for love combines to turn him into the classic villain. Yet his intense though clearly deceitful pledge of love to Gilda and passionate farewell scene with her – a love scene that gave off sparks – were all conveyed in a series of famous arias that had the audience cheering.

Rigoletto, cursed by the Count of Monterone for mocking him in front of the entire court for raging that the Duke had dishonored him by seducing his daughter, had done all in his power to protect Gilda, his only child, from the Duke's libertine intentions. He forbid her to go anywhere outside his house except to church.

But the handsome Duke's disguise as a student – who approached Gilda right outside her house while Rigoletto was in court -- made his protective measures impotent.

The Count was played with ferocious intensity by bass-baritone Michel Ventura whose initial entrance into the court to protest the Duke's seduction of his daughter was electrifying. His magnificent voice and litany of curses echoed and re-echoed through the Kate and his performance was typical of the entire production.

The 30-member cast and 25 piece orchestra, led by Musical and Executive and Artistic Director Simon Holt, blended seamlessly into the 12-year old company's greatest success to date. The lavish costumes, staging, lighting and super titles were worthy of this truly remarkable production.

The ending of Rigoletto is both searing and deeply moving. Rigoletto had paid an assassin for hire, Sparafucile, to murder the Duke for dishonoring Gilda. Bass Michael Reder made this darkly villainous role his own. And his sister, Maddalena, a temptress Sparafucile used to lure his victims to his home, was sung with just the right combination of seduction and mocking challenge by mezzo soprano Maria Elena Armijo.

Rigoletto brought his daughter to Sparafucile's dilapidated inn by a river, setting a trap for the Duke, who falls into it by making love to Maddalena right in front of their spying eyes. The scene is which Armijo as Maddalena maintains her composure even as she is being groped by the Duke, sends Gilda into deep despair.

But while inviting the duke to her home so her brother can kill him, Maddalena, overcome by the Duke's charms, pleads for her brother to spare him and kill another in his place – some stranger who he will tell Rigoletto is the Duke.

The plan backfires when Gilda, disguised as a man and determined to save her lover despite his betrayal, shows up outside Sparafucile's home and is stabbed in place of the Duke and placed in a sack, to be thrown into the river, as planned.

But when Rigoletto shows up, he insists it is he who will do the throwing and then, as he is about to do so, hears the supposedly dead Duke singing in Sparafucile's home. Horrified, he opens the sack and discovers it contains his daughter, not yet dead but drawing her last breaths. Clinging to her, in an aria that tears at the heart, he begs her not to die and the lights go out as Monterone's curse is fulfilled.

The standing ovations that followed were a tribute to Director Nathaniel Merchant and the entire cast and orchestra, which transformed one of Verdi's most challenging and difficult to perform operas into a triumph of teamwork and talent.

The production, performed twice at the George Kent Performance Hall in Westerly, Rhode Island, and repeated at the Kate on Sunday afternoon, was the product of just 12 days of rehearsals.

Bravo.