Clay Hilley and Michaelle Bradley (as Radames and Aida), in Act III of Verdi's "Aida" with Nicola Luisotti and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. (credit: Jeff Roffman)

Luisotti leads the ASO and eight top singers in glowing Verdi

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
May 19 & 20, 2022
Atlanta Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center
Atlanta, Georgia – USA

Nicola Luisotti, conductor; Michaelle Bradley & Jasmine Habersham, sopranos; Denyce Graves, mezzo-soprano; Santiago Ballerini & Clay Hilley, tenors; Stephen Powell & Reginald Smith, Jr., baritones; Burak Bilgili, bass-baritone.
VERDI: Rigoletto (Act III)
VERDI: Aida (Act III)

Mark Gresham | 20 MAY 2022

On Thursday evening, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by guest conductor Nicola Luisotti, presented an all-Verdi concert comprised of Act III of Rigoletto, followed by Act III of Aida, both sung in Italian with English supertitles. Seven notable operatic vocalists joined the orchestra as featured guest solo artists to sing the required roles: sopranos Michaelle Bradley and Jasmine Habersham, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, tenors Santiago Ballerini and Clay Hilley, baritones Stephen Powell and Reginald Smith, Jr., and bass Burak Bilgili.

Presenting a pair of acts from different operas is an unusual bit of programming for an orchestra. It involves neither a complete opera in concert form nor a clutch of operatic arias excerpted and gathered to feature a particular guest soloist, each more common. Unusual, perhaps, but in this instance, the programming concept worked well.

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The concert opened with Act III of Rigoletto, which quickly offered up one of the most familiar operatic tunes in popular consciousness: “La donna è mobile,” the theme of the arrogant and salacious Duke of Manuta (Santiago Ballerini). We first hear it as he attempts the seduction of Maddalena (Denyce Graves), sister of Sparafucile (Burak Bilgili), a hitman whom Rigoletto (Stephen Powell) has hired to kill the Duke in revenge for seducing his daughter, Gilda (Jasmine Habersham).

Possessing a lustrous tenor voice, Ballerini delivered his part with an engaging lyricism and expressive, detailed phrasing. He was first introduced to Atlanta audiences in the 2016-17 season through The Atlanta Opera’s Studio Artist Program, and his career has been on the rise ver since. He most recently performed the Duke of Mantua role earlier this month with Opera San Antonio, a production initially scheduled for 2020 but postponed due to the pandemic.

Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves was a counterpoint to Ballerini’s carefree Duke in the minor role of Maddalena, with a strongly etched personality and her voice’s famously smoky lower range.

Graves sang the role of Marnie’s mother in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2018 American premiere of the opera Marnie by Nico Muhly (conducted by the ASO’s Robert Spano in his own Met debut). With a history of international acclaim for singing the title role in Bizet’s Carmen, Graves is stage director for a production of Carmen currently running at Minnesota Opera (St. Paul) and which repeats in July at Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, NY.

Turkish bass-baritone Burak Bilgili gave an excellent turn here as Sparafucile. Atlantans will remember Bilgili from the ASO’s performances of Mozart’s Requiem this past March and in multiple roles with The Atlanta Opera, including the title role in their 2017 production of Don Pasquale.

Stephen Powell and Jasmine Habersham (as Rigoletto and Gilda), in Act III of Verdi's "Rigoletto" with Nicola Luisotti and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. (credit: Jeff Roffman)

Stephen Powell and Jasmine Habersham (as Rigoletto and Gilda), in Act III of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” with Nicola Luisotti and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. (credit: Jeff Roffman)

Soprano Jasmine Habersham was vocally luminous as Gilda, a role she sang earlier this year in Opera North’s production of Rigoletto (in Leeds, UK), and is scheduled to reprise at Utah Opera in March 2023. Here in her native Atlanta, she was most recently heard with The Atlanta Opera this past November as Cleopatra in Handel’s Julius Caesar, and before that as Micaëla in the company’s Spring ’22 Big Tent production of Carmen.

For the iconic title role of Rigoletto, vocal strength in the upper part of the baritone range is a prerequisite, which Stephen Powell delivered with emotional power and clarity. Powell had last sung the title role of Rigoletto in early 2019 with San Diego Opera and will do so again this coming November in Denver with Opera Colorado. He was most recently heard in Atlanta this past December as the Father in the ASO’s Hansel and Gretel.

Another high point was the familiar Scene 2 quartet, sung by Habersham, Graves, Ballerini, and Powell, which begins with the line “Un di se ben rammentomi” (“A self I remember well”),

Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti, who is currently the principal guest conductor of Madrid’s Teatro Real and was music director of San Francisco Opera from 2009 to 2018, drew a round-toned, buoyant sound from the orchestra that felt ideal.

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Michaelle Bradley sang the title role of Aida. She had just come off a run of 15 performances of Aida at the Metropolitan Opera that began in December. Her big, soaring soprano was well-heard above the orchestral forces supporting her.

As the Egyptian captain of the guard Radamès, who is secretly Aida’s lover, tenor Clay Hilley matched Bradley’s vocal power well and made a great partner in both voice and character. Together their performances emphasized vocal tone and projection more than a detailed articulation of the text.

Baritone Reginald Smith Jr., a familiar face to Atlanta audiences, offered a keen rendering of Amonasro, King of Ethiopia and Aida’s father. His most recent performance as Amonasro was in an April 2021 production of Aida with Opera Carolina (Charlotte, NC). Like Ballerini, he performed in Rigoletto with Opera San Antonio early this month as Count Monterone.

Here again, Luisotto brought forth the right sound from the ASO, making it a complete collaborator in the music’s drama, and giving it a strong, assured presence without becoming overwhelming.

The ASO will repeat this program tonight (May 20), at 8:00 pm at Atlanta Symphony Hall.


Mark Gresham

Mark Gresham is publisher and principal writer of EarRelevant. he began writing as a music journalist over 30 years ago, but has been a composer of music much longer than that. He was the winner of an ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism in 2003.