Seattle Opera 2019-20 Review: Rigoletto
Lindy Hume Delivers A Fascinating Look At Verdi’s Masterwork Under a Modern LensBy John Carroll
(Credit Sunny Martini)
Right from the start of Seattle Opera’s “Rigoletto,” stage director Lindy Hume signaled not to expect the evening to adhere too closely to operatic convention. The curtain went up suddenly with the house lights still on, showing us, in silence, a man dressed as a waiter or Maitre D’ sitting on a deluxe leather sofa in a dimly lit, opulent contemporary hospitality suite. That must be Rigoletto, looking emotionally drained and physically exhausted before a note of music had been played. After a moment, the house lights dimmed and the conductor, the magnanimous Carlo Monanaro, entered the pit and took the traditional short spot-lit nod-of-the-head bow, and the prelude began.
It was a subtle and effective adjustment to one’s expectations about how this well-known opera was going to unfold.
A Contemporary World
Once underway, Hume’s brilliantly updated production didn’t push actively against conventions, but it’s contemporary setting immediately wiped away a century of performance cliches from this masterpiece and made its universal themes of power and corruption, misogyny and assault, revenge and fate sharply reflective of the current state of the world.
Director Hume is on record saying she set this production in Italy in 2012 with the Duke based on the louche former Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi. We were dropped into a fast-paced world of austere luxury and seedy sexuality, media saturation, mobile phones, power suits, sunglasses, cigarettes, and tattoos.
There were television monitors everywhere in the Duke’s hospitality suite, broadcasting a checkerboard of news feeds and entertainment shows (and by their adjacencies blurring whatever distinction might still remain between the two).
Hume placed a camera crew on stage as part of the action, filming the opening scenes live and streaming the coverage from their on-stage viewpoint on to several monitors, all the while underlining social media’s ethos that everything today should be photographed and shared with the world in an endless loop of self-promotion.
The overly ominous motion graphic animations of flying ravens that took over the screens a few times were one of the few misses in the otherwise dazzling production design from Richard Roberts. The sets were intriguing in scale and ambiance, with a revolving stage that was both functional and fascinating — all enhanced by evocative lighting of Jason Morphett.
Verdi’s “Rigoletto” has no women in the chorus, yet Hume included a few women as supernumeraries in the Duke’s cabinet— they seemed to be PR directors and executive assistants — dressed in power suits and fully complicit in the abuse going on around them. There were also several ladies dressed in skimpy black cocktail dresses serving as the men’s escorts and victims of the their sexual power grabs.
Casual, dangerous sex lurked throughout the production, from blatant on-stage molestation to a semi-nude morning-after walk of shame. The whole environment felt on point and current, if appropriately heightened for theatrical/operatic effect.
Maitre D’ & Daughter
An obvious challenge with updating “Rigoletto” is that modern political cabinets don’t have a Court Jester, at least not intentionally. To solve this conundrum, Rigoletto was remade into something of the Duke’s Maitre D’, albeit one with a biting sense of humor.
Lester Lynch was a sympathetic pseudo-jester, embodying a man who’d finally had enough of living on the edges of abusive power and contributing to its toxicity. That he tries to bring the whole thing crumbling down is admirable and builds empathy for him, but it can’t dispel the fact that he is an ineffectual loser who can’t catch a break.
Lynch leaned into Rigoletto’s enormous emotional extremes, but inhabiting this long, taxing role felt like hard work for him. He is not the ideal vocal match for this classic Verdi baritone role that emphasizes the top part of the range, which is not Lynch’s vocal sweet spot (he avoided any optional high notes). He was most successful in the tender moments with Gilda, floating a soft, if blurry, tone, but he lacked the vocal “squillo” to make us feel in our bones the bite of the character’s rage.
Madison Leonard was a stand-out in Seattle Opera’s “Carmen” as Frasquita just a few months ago, so it was a pleasure to see her again so soon in a leading role that showcased the full breadth of her talents.
As Gilda, Leonard was a totally natural stage presence with nary a false moment. Her pure, appealing lyric soprano had a slight fluttery spin reminiscent of Pilar Lorengar, and her clear upper extension ensured that the staccato cadenza to the high E-flat was pristine and the big high E-flat at the end of the vengeance duet blew my hair back.
“Caro nome” was the vocal highlight of the evening: set in Gilda’s bedroom, we saw and heard a breathless teenager, hugging her pillow at the joy of it all.
As the Duke, Liparit Avetisyant delivered a bright, confident tenor with a vocal swagger that almost made you understand why Gilda would throw her life away for this guy. The way he milked the final high B natural in “La donna e mobile,” sitting on a barstool at Sparafucile’s dive bar while slowly donning his sunglasses was priceless. That kind of vocal and personal charisma can’t be faked. It was a sly performance: here’s a man that is so privileged, he truly can’t help himself.
Ante Jerkunica’s Sparafucile made a huge impact. Introduced in Act one at a bus stop with a menacing, sexy presence and an alluring molten bass voice, this was an assassin that meant business. As his sister Maddalena, Emily Fons’ was trashy and quite funny — who knew this role had so much humor in it?
This is the first production of the season that kicks off Christina Scheppelmann’s new leadership as General Director. Of course, she didn’t plan or cast this production — that was Aiden Lang. But I’d like to think Scheppelmann was there during rehearsals and endorsed this powerful production and that she is off to a brilliant start.