'Rigoletto' at the Met unites a father and daughter. Again.

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'Rigoletto' at the Met unites a father and daughter. Again.
Quinn Kelsey, left, and Rosa Feola as the father-daughter roles of Rigoletto and Gilda in a new production of “Rigoletto” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Dec. 31, 2021. Kelsey and Feola have earned raves playing a jester and his child in a new production of Verdi’s opera. Richard Termine/The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

NEW YORK, NY.- Quinn Kelsey and Rosa Feola are used to playing father and daughter.

It started in 2013, when Kelsey jumped into the title role of the cursed jester in Verdi’s opera “Rigoletto” in Zurich; Feola was in that production, too, as Gilda, the daughter Rigoletto has kept secret. Since then, they’ve sung those characters together, Feola recalled in a recent video call, “five, six, maybe seven times.”

Now they are doing the parts in Bartlett Sher’s new staging of “Rigoletto” at the Metropolitan Opera, which opened New Year’s Eve and moves the action to Weimar Germany. It’s a breakthrough for both singers. Feola, a soprano who made her Met debut in a revival of the old production in 2019, is returning to eager anticipation and the spotlight of a premiere. And Kelsey, a Met fixture in baritone parts for more than a decade, is finally getting a true starring role — onstage and on Lincoln Center billboards.

“Kelsey has always been an arresting artist,” Anthony Tommasini wrote in a review for The New York Times. “But this role shows off his full vocal and dramatic depth.”

Tommasini added that Feola followed up her impressive 2019 debut with a performance in which “coloratura runs and trills emerged as integral extensions of the long-spun vocal lines. She captured Gilda’s innocence, but also the sensual stirrings and secret defiance that drive this overprotected young woman’s disastrous decisions.”

Lisette Oropesa was originally cast as the production’s Gilda, said Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager. But when she asked to be released to take on a new role elsewhere, she suggested he hire Feola, who at the time hadn’t yet sung there. Then came her debut.

“There are some singers you hear, and you know immediately that they are a major talent,” Gelb said. “We knew that with her.”

In future seasons, she will broaden her Met repertory: Gelb hinted at “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “La Traviata” and a new production of Giordano’s “Fedora.”

Daniele Rustioni, the “Rigoletto” conductor, has done at least 10 operas with Feola and said that over the years he has seen her develop to give Gilda “360 degrees.”

“She gives the tenderness, the desperation, the courage,” he added. “She’s not the poor Bambi in the forest.”

Rustioni was pleasantly surprised by Kelsey, with whom he hadn’t worked before, calling him a great Rigoletto of our time who is “destined for great things.” He is, Gelb added, “one of our first choices when we think of Verdi baritones,” and his coming Met appearances include “Un Ballo in Maschera,” “Aida” and “Macbeth.”

“He’s a Rigoletto of enormous cruelty and empathy,” Gelb said. “I think that Bart was really encouraging him to go for things in ways he hadn’t before. And he’s got all the qualities as a performer to deliver it.”

Kelsey has been forced to miss at least three performances after testing positive for the coronavirus this week but is expected to be back on stage Jan. 15. (Michael Chioldi is singing in his place.) Kelsey and Feola, at their respective homes in New York for the run, spoke in the call about their work together and the new production. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: How have you grown in these roles together over the years?

QUINN KELSEY: The more these two characters can be comfortable with each other, the easier it is for the two of them to pull off this relationship. “You’re my daughter” and “You’re my father” — that’s easy to say, but it’s important to find the connection and build it right away. For us, it’s become easier and allowed us to explore new facets of our relationship.

ROSA FEOLA: In the first duet, when I say “Mio padre!” and he says “Figlia!” we just look at each other, and it’s enough. Because in our eyes we’ve already said everything. And at the end, when she dies, she says, “Mio padre, addio!” It’s a kind of “I love you so much, and there’s nothing more to say.” We have many things to say, even if we are not singing or speaking. That, for me, makes it very special.

Q: Has this production changed your understanding of the characters?

KELSEY: The more you perform the role, the more you can’t help but pay attention to what you’re saying, to the things that your colleagues bring to the production, that you weren’t always aware of. For me, it’s just been the idea of being more specific. You have to transition from evil to uneasy to scared to loving tenderness, all within the first 30 minutes, and this production has been about making specific decisions about when it all happens. Gilda is also older than normally portrayed, enough that she has a specific drive and vision.

FEOLA: She wants to be older. In the second act, there is a new scene that Bart puts in: When she’s undressed in the duke’s room, she doesn’t feel something bad. She understands that to be the partner of that guy, she needs to accept it. Gilda is a strong woman. So at the end of the story, she decides the moment to put the knife in the hand of Sparafucile and make him kill her.

KELSEY: Bart gave us so much opportunity to really expand the structure of these two characters. Instead of Rigoletto being a bad guy and paying for it later, and Gilda being a delicate flower, we have been allowed to take it a few steps further.

And with these dramatic challenges, if you don’t have the music underneath you as a perfect cushion, it’s so much harder to pull off. So the amount of detail extends to the orchestra and chorus behaving around us as part of a larger entity, which strengthens our ability to tell the story — more than I feel I ever have been able to.

Q: What does this production mean at this stage in your careers?

FEOLA: My debut at the Met with “Rigoletto” was already a big deal for me, as an Italian singer singing Verdi, one of the most beautiful operas of Verdi. And also this character, which I have sung since 2009 and studied with Renata Scotto. So I feel very comfortable with the timing, and making a new production at the Met of course means a lot.

KELSEY: I’m proud of the fact that I’ve has as much experience in this role as I have. I covered Rigoletto for the first time 15 years ago; I knew back then that I could sing it, but woof, that was work. It was a really sensitive thing, because Verdi baritones aren’t normally pursuing this role as early as I did, and if it hadn’t worked out, I definitely would have put it away.

But I’ve always had success, and it’s grown in me. So the fact that I’m in my early 40s and can come to the Met with the amount of experience that I’ve built up, to bring all of my tools and apply it to a new production — it’s like a perfect culture for a seedling. It’s the opportunity for something to germinate and grow as well as it ever could. I’m so pleased, and I know it will just get better.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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