A stellar opera to end Sommerfest

  • Article by: LARRY FUCHSBERG , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 30, 2012 - 3:39 PM

REVIEW: Baritone Stephen Powell held nothing back in a stunning portrayal of Verdi's tortured Rigoletto.

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Andrew Litton, Sommerfest artistic director

Already it's over. The Minnesota Orchestra's 32nd Sommerfest, banished to the banks of the Mississippi by the renovation of Orchestra Hall, ended Saturday evening. "Summer's lease hath all too short a date," said Shakespeare, and he was right.

Closing Sommerfest with a less-than-fully-staged opera has been a tradition since the festival's earliest days -- a not inexpensive practice that artistic director Andrew Litton has lobbied to maintain, despite financial challenges. But no amount of lobbying could be as persuasive as Saturday's spectacular performance, under Litton's baton, of Giuseppe Verdi's 1851 "Rigoletto" -- the composer's favorite among his 26 operas and a work that, even with its visual dimension narrowed, claws at the heart.

In the demanding title role, baritone Stephen Powell was nothing short of phenomenal; it's hard to imagine a more complex, more integrated portrayal. Powell's is a voice of stunning potency and immediacy, and he used it brilliantly to capture the successive waves of rage and tenderness that engulf his character (a hunchbacked, acid-tongued court jester who is also a fatally overprotective father). He appeared to hold nothing back, yet had power in reserve for his final, anguished cries.

Maureen O'Flynn's luminous but not quite angelic Gilda left no doubt that the father-daughter relationship is the emotional axis of "Rigoletto." (There are more flattering roles for soprano, but none that rewards more richly the taste and poise of the singer.) O'Flynn's account of "Caro nome" -- Verdi's bewitching homage to the bel canto tradition -- was the soul of elegance, but did not exclude a dash of slyness.

As the swaggering Duke of Mantua (Rigoletto's employer and Gilda's seducer), Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones occasionally overplayed his hand, pumping more of his bright, sometimes hard-edged sound into the University of Minnesota's modestly scaled Ted Mann Hall than it could absorb. But at his best -- in the reprises of the famous "La donna è mobile," for example -- he was ravishing. And his excesses were arguably in character.

Smaller roles were strongly cast. Bass Matt Boehler's commanding subterranean rumble made him a chilling Sparafucile (an assassin with a code of ethics); mezzo Anna DeGraff was a comely Maddalena, distinguishing herself in the great Act 4 Quartet. The articulate male chorus was drawn from the Minnesota Chorale.

"Rigoletto" was a milestone in Verdi's handling of the orchestra, and Litton (whose contract, happily, has been extended to 2014) plainly relished the music's novel sonorities. His vibrant conducting, as pointed as it was propulsive, made the band a full partner in the action; only rarely did he swamp the singers.

Two veteran players bade farewell to the orchestra at Saturday's concert: violinist Sarah Kwak, who in the fall becomes concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony, and oboist Basil Reeve, who is retiring. Ovations, please!

Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.

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