This summer the esteemed Bel Canto at Caramoor series paired a Donizetti opera, Lucrezia Borgia, with one by Verdi, Rigoletto, each based on a play by Victor Hugo. Hugo himself noted a similarity between the plays in question, which Will Crutchfield, the series’ director, elaborated on: the operas are about “two parents who have taken a deeply compromised, basically immoral path in life, who each have a single child whom they hope above all to shield from that evil, and who both bring about that child’s death”.
Caramoor performances have sometimes stressed Verdi’s link back to the earlier generation of so-called bel canto composers. Here the link runs in the opposite direction: with its lurid plot involving strong passions and multiple poisonings, Lucrezia Borgia is an instance of a bel canto composer pointing the way towards the blood and thunder of Verdi. But even Verdi never created a heroine as dastardly as Lucrezia, whose one redeeming trait (a modest one) is her love for a son no one knows is hers.
Still, it’s a wonderful role and it proved ideal for marking another step in the artistic development of the gifted soprano Angela Meade. She was especially strong in the opera’s confrontations, wielding her big voice to maximum effect without letting her singing turn gross. And she was striking in the opera’s concluding cabaletta – sung over the body of her son, whom she inadvertently poisoned – excelling in both its impassioned and florid aspects. Michele Angelini was satisfactory as Lucrezia’s son Gennaro, and Tamara Mumford sang vibrantly in the trouser role of Orsini. But Meade was the main attraction in a performance that was conducted with assurance but was not quite as stylistically informed as one hopes for from the erudite Crutchfield. Among other things, there were “traditional” cuts.
Rigoletto, strongly led by Crutchfield in a virtually uncut performance, was another matter. Here was the kind of fresh approach to a familiar work that one hopes to encounter at Caramoor. Especially gratifying were the creative use of appoggiaturas and other embellishments, some unconventional phrasing and a few novel cadenzas. Further, there was an appreciable amount of expressive soft singing. In his programme note, Crutchfield made a point about following Verdi’s metronome markings, but the only striking departure was a rather deliberate tempo for the Duke’s ballata “Questa o quella”. As with Lucrezia Borgia, the concert performance benefited from a simple but effective staging, and the cast would be welcome in any opera house. Stephen Powell’s grandly sung Rigoletto was outstanding. John Osborn brought an abundance of swagger and ringing tone to the Duke, and Georgia Jarman was an exquisite Gilda.