|QuinnKelsey and Georgia Jarman (photo credit: Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera|
It was indeed a "buona notte" at the Santa Fe Opera when a perfect storm of casting and direction created a Rigoletto to Remember. Although there was no actual weather event as there was five years ago here, when Mother Nature provided real live lightning and thunder for Act III, there were fireworks aplenty onstage.
Baritone Quinn Kelsey's portrayal of the eponymous character was both chilling and moving. Like every other character in this work, his complexity was captured by the artist and one couldn't help but think of Shakespeare's characters, always so multidimensional. Warped in body and spirit, Rigoletto expresses his rage at his condition by verbally attacking the courtiers comprising the court of the licentious Duke of Mantua--provoking, embarrassing and humiliating them under the protection of the Duke. But he has a soft and tender side as well, expressed in his duets with his lovely daughter Gilda. Mr. Quinn's rich baritone and expressive skills worked as well in his mocking mood as they did in his tender scenes with Gilda.
Gilda is also a complex character. She is the very incarnation of innocence, having been sheltered from the world by her overprotective father. She too has another side. She hides some very essential facts from her father and lies about the fact that she has been oourted by the Duke himself in the guise of a poor student named Gualtier Malde. Soprano Georgia Jarman used her gorgeous instrument and consummate phrasing to show the tender caring of daughter for father in their duets together. Her admirable coloratura skills were employed for her flights of fioritura in the famous aria "Caro nome". Her prodigious vocal skills were complemented by total immersion in her character. We believed her and cared about her.
The Duke is a more consistent character, imbued as he is with licentiousness and depravity. But the tenor assigned this challenging role, Bruce Ledge, needs to hide his true character and convince Gilda that he is a poor student feeling the most honorable feelings toward her. Yet Verdi's music tells us everything we need to know about this scumbag. Ledge delivered his "Questa o quella" and "La donna e mobile" with the same spirit as that with which he tossed women onto the floor.
As Sparafucile, the hired assassin who is too ethical (!) to cheat a client, bass Peixin Chen made a fine chilling appearance and, as his sister Maddalena, mezzo-soprano Nicole Piccolomini made a fine showing with one of the most powerful voices we have heard recently in this fach. It was easy to see how she could overpower her reluctant brother in her wish to spare the life of the Duke, who has managed to work his seductive magic on her as well.
Gilda's caretaker Giovanna, sung by mezzo Anne Marie Stanley, was given an unusual emphasis. She was portrayed as a poor wretch, hungry enough to lick the crumbs off Rigoletto's plate. Her resentment toward her master was so great that she not only betrayed him by accepting bribes from the Duke but also from the courtiers who abducted her charge. To add insult to injury, before her treachery can be punished, she gathers her few belongings, spits on her master and runs off.
Baritone Jarrett Ott stood out as a fine Marullo, one of the courtiers, and veteran Robert Pomakov's sturdy base lent emphasis to the aristocratic Count Monterone whose daughter (Andrea Nunez) has been disgraced by the Duke. Bass Calvin Griffin was fine as Count Ceprano whose wife, portrayed by Shabnam Kalbasi, is also in the Duke's sights. It is always a pleasure for us to see and hear so many fine young artists getting a chance to shine onstage.
Musical values were superb all around with Maestro Jader Bignamini leading a propulsive account of Verdi's score. The evening seemed to fly by all too quickly but never felt rushed. The fine points of Verdi's orchestration were fully realized. Today's audience would scarcely believe that this major hit from Verdi's middle period (premiered in 1851) was perceived as revolutionary in its compositional innovations and was also subject to great difficulties from the Austrian censors who were occupying the north of Italy. They saw Francesco Maria Piavi's libretto (adapted from Victor Hugo's play "Le roi s'amuse"), as highly immoral.
We could just imagine how they might have reacted to Director Lee Blakeley version of 2015! He chose to set the work in the period of The Risorgimento, Verdi's own time, also the time of the Counter-Reformation and the Restoration of the Catholic Church. In Blakeley's version, the court is wildly lascivious and seems to be in full orgy mode at all times. Along the same lines, Sparafucile's tavern is actually a brothel with Maddalena performing sexual duties along with other "sex workers". Although one might interpret this as overkill, the concept did work as a manifestation of extreme depravity.
Other directors have updated the work from the 16th c. There was a Mafia version by Jonathan Miller, there was the Doris Dorrie version set on the Planet of the Apes (!) , the Linda Brovsky version set in Mussolini's fascist Italy, the Las Vegas version by Michael Mayer and, most recently, Lindy Hume's version set in Berlusconi's paparazzi-driven world. For our taste, Mr. Blakeley's version suits us best. We can believe that Monterone's curse la maledizione was received with credulity and fear during that period, but not in the 20th c. We are waiting for a version set in Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion so we can howl with laughter.
We found the Scenic and Costume Design by Adrian Linford to be a bit distracting and unsatisfying. A rather undersized revolving stage permitted the audience to see the court, Rigoletto's house and Sparafucile' tavern in rapid succession. This made for a speedy evening without lengthy intermissions and kept the drama moving forward. But the set itself was crowded and puzzling. Why would the Duke tolerate threadbare furniture? Why is everything atilt? There was an overall emphasis on poverty: Giovanna seems to be starving and Sparafucile is dressed in rags like a hobo. Some characters are dressed according to the mid 19th c. and others seem to be wearing contemporary streetwear.
In sum, the Santa Fe Opera has mounted a real winner that scored well in the areas we value most highly--Verdi's tuneful yet character-driven music given its full due, and the high level of characterization and drama that led us to experience the involvement we so greatly appreciate.The casting was astute; the singers all had fine voices and enacted characters one could believe. The chorus, comprising apprentices directed by Susanne Sheston, added enormously to the musical value and to the drama.
(c) meche kroop