San Francisco Opera 2017 Review – Rigoletto: A Deeply Moving Portrayal of the Verdi Masterwork

(Credit: San Francisco Opera / Cory Weaver)

“Rigoletto” can’t be topped for its humanity. A father and a daughter, a jester, a virginal naif, longing for and trying to sustain a good a life in selfish and lecherous world, power-hungry and greedy, 16th century Mantua. Such is the subject of Verdi’s middle period masterpiece. The libretto by Francisco Maria Piave is based on the play “Le Roi S’Amuse” of the French author Victor Hugo, setting the downbeat for his subsequent career as THE 19th century Master of the Italian opera repertoire.

 In 2017 San Francisco Opera’s summer production, under the guidance of director and SFO Rob Kearley, we witness a moving performance as well as experience the entire arc of ominous determinism of “La Maledizione (The Curse,” the title which Verdi first considered for the work. Rigoletto’s chilling “Quel vecchio maledivami (The old man cursed me!)” locks us right into inexorable tragedy from which there is no escape. Rob Kearley keeps this uppermost coordinating musical intensity, stage action and vocal performance.

A Deeply Moving Rigoletto

Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey plays the part of Rigoletto with confidence. From piebald jester’s outfit, complete with cap and bells, his hunchback camouflaged by high collar, carrying a stick puppet resembling him, and wearing a thick cable rope around his neck illustrating his slavish relationship with his master, we discover his core caring and tenderness. But the ostracized and mocked Jester cannot shed the anxiety with his clothing so easily. Conventional gray cloak, tights, and “borselino” may allow him to express his protectiveness, but they cannot dismiss the shadow of his evil deeds.

Kelsey’s full-throated baritone rings with sympathy and pathos as he moves toward the inexorable conclusion, first sounded in Verdi’s short prelude. Not his social status, his conflicting roles, or his hunchback, symbolic of his ostracism, account for all he endures. Never is this more pronounced than when stands humiliated and holding the ladder to his own home, blindfolded as his compatriots from court, steal his beloved dove for the Duke. When he rips off his blindfold and lashes into the justly famous aria “Corteggiani, vil razza, dannata/ per qual prezzo vendeste il mio bene (Courtiers, vile and damned rabble, how much did you get to steal her?),” Kelsey drives this message home. Even if there might be more bite in condemnation and lust for revenge, his phrasing stretching out the words with each vowel and syllable and thus becoming themselves miniature daggers filled with his venom, the cumulative effect of his rage grants him and by extension the viewer, a modicum of relief. Of course, the finale when he sings his heart out over Gilda’s murder, sinking on the floor with Gilda in his arms, we know from his body and voice, this is never-ending, profound grief.

An Earthy Gilda

Gilda, played by Nino Machaidze, the Georgian soprano in her SFO debut, herself with a secret of having left the house and met the “handsome young student in Church,” feigns innocence on that score, but promises her father, in their moving duet, that she will do what he says. She is, however, in love, and she has no real intention of doing so. Still, she is heart-sore about it. Reality accompanies every syllable of the music, however, and anxiety, doubt and lack of power dilute their soaring promises.

With a voice that had a tendency to land a tad sharp at top notes at times, Machaidze chooses a more earthy than thinned, feathery sound for her “Gualtier Malde.” The choice leads us not to a more transcendent love, but to an ironic “Caro Nome.” Her “Amato” is the crude Duke of “Quest o Quello,” and we know it. Although no doubt Puccini’s “Bruna o Bionda” aria in “Manon Lescaut” took its inspiration from this aria, it does not jab the belly the way the Duke’s aria does, and we feel the full power of Gilda being duped. The single phrase alone almost foreshadows her downfall. Perhaps the static pose she strikes – right arm planted on left breast, left on right waist – almost throughout this exquisite aria and later again, we find Gilda guarding herself, enclosing rather than soaring. Perhaps she is still too wrapped in dream to soar. She knows her dream more intimately than anything else at this point. But, still, her sincerity is authentic and offers us another Verdi antidote to menace and evil.

Machaidze sings with equal ardor to Kelsey. In fact, the two, father and daughter are quasi-lovers of the opera, though filial ones. Their unity of purpose and conviction lift us at once out of the degradation and into a realm where all is good and human beings live in truth.

A Delicious Villain

New Zealand tenor and Adler Fellow Pene Pati made his SFO debut as the lecherous Duke, a man with a gargantuan appetite for self-gratification and self-aggrandizement. He matched Kelsey in his robust performance, more than holding his own through the array of very famous arias, especially at the top register. His low register occasionally became somewhat blurred, and sometimes drowned out by the orchestra. But he definitely succeeded in making himself aptly dislikeable. Whether boasting of his conquests – moving methodically through the three acts from adulterer, to cad, to self-gratifying lust-filled power-monger –  he was convincing. The Duke lacks a name, the Role of Duke sufficient to his mind. Even the made-up Gualtier Malde lacks identity. Even so, Pati as the Duke casts such a spell, that even the beautiful aria, “Parmi veder le lagrime,” compels us to question, at least for a second, whether this man does love the innocent Gilda after all.

Ah, but no, we are ensnared. Such sonority does beguile but we come to, we identify how deceit gilds every note. Verdi was more than inspired in the forty days in which he wrote this opera, bringing us into and beyond the Duke’s seductive duplicity with brilliance.

We can see how Verdi draws from the opera buffa types for these three roles, but he masterfully turns them into three-dimensional beings. The buffoon, the cad, the innocent heroine, the villain, the wounded father, the vamp … we have them all, but Verdi knew how to stroke vocal types into human beings, in all their range, their color, their conviction. In SFO’s production, we find ourselves in the hands of a true maestro who affords us this rich human and musical palette.  This is so even as sometimes the performers limit their acting to conventional gestures and eye contact, singers looking out at the audience rather than partners. One such example would be the Duke singing his duet with Gilda in her room, Act 1 or Gilda singing to her father before she presents herself at the Tavern door in Act 3. Still, we shiver with the dark story that chills our bones. It is important to see that although the spine of each character is a type, although the performing focuses on the musical personality rather than the more dramatic depth, we come away with genuine loss and grief.

So too with Sparafucile, played by Andrea Silvestrelli, and Monterone, played by Andrew G. Manea, current Adler Fellow, both of whose voices ring out delectably dark. Even Maddalena, played by Zanda Svede, whose throaty voice oozes sensuosity, gives us some of the array of darkness Mozart offers in “Don Giovanni.” Who can resist the echo, “Sparafucile mio nome e (Sparafucile is my name),” to make sure Rigoletto remembers him, and the “Va Va Va (Go, go, go,)” Rigoletto presses back. Chilling indeed.

The Chorus, directed by Ian Robertson amply supports the narrative thrust, as does the set mounted by Michael Yeargan. Sometimes it becomes too busy and less focused on the main events, despite the Chirico-inspired sets. The red of Gilda’s room, for instance, seems too obvious, somewhat mocking Gilda’s innocence too stridently. Softened by the lattice doors in the Tavern, this red seems more apt. The same can’t be said for the rolling off of the “box” both in the first and final acts. The sound itself detracts and distracts from the carefully built tension in the music.

Costumes by Constance Hoffman forward the story well, the jaunty outfit of the title character and the flashy outfit of the Duke, complete with sparkly red earrings and necklace, complement their roles and their representations. The courtiers stay subdued in shades of black with apt decorative accessories, including hats of different styles and rank. Who can forget, however, the once-upon-a-time Ponnelle red? Just how selectively it layered evil in the fabric. Ponnelle’s use of the hand-puppet might have been used to more effect in this production, however, particularly when the disguise theme reaches its apogee.

Gary Marder who designed the lights, used the strobe lights particularly well in the growing storm in Act 3, increasing flickering and jarring as Gilda vacillates momentarily about knocking on the tavern door, a knock which kills her and saves the rogue lover. Although we well know what Verdi is doing, it still works like a charm.

The Orchestra, under the baton of the well-appreciated Nicolo Luisotti, drove the pace, although it seemed to press forward un piu troppo, and somewhat anxiously, sometimes straining the story line, which requires digestion more than speed. We need time to absorb all the pain and sorrow such evil, superstition, and irony in which we are enwrapped. We need to feel its full gravity. Still, the musical direction kept us moving into the realm of high art, where however dark, it triumphs over our limited reactions and leads us some steps beyond time.

Ah, Verdi. “Pace, pace, il maestro,” for his gift, his vision, his human heart.

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