Thursday, September 13, 2012

San Francisco Opera: Verdi’s Rigoletto

Sept. 11, 2012

Having a production design back for a fourth go-around is no problem when it’s Michael Yeargan’s 1997 chiaroscuro set, an urban nightscape of stark angles and colors drawn from the work of Giorgio de Chirico, but also evocative (to American eyes) of Edward Hopper. The effect is a world bent on darkness and chaos, which certainly fits Rigoletto. Constance Hoffman, meanwhile, contributes supremely ornate medieval Italian fashions that represent the Mantua court’s excesses of power.

Repeated exposure to the opera reveals a creation ridiculously rich in melody – with a cast, in this case, fully equipped to take advantage. Italian tenor Francesco Demuro issued a plea for understanding in consideration of his head cold, and then proceeded to deliver a perfect Duke. His tone casts an even balance between lirico and spinto, capturing both sides of the macho but over-romantic rake. Demuro excelled – as a lady-killer should – in his duets, notably the artfully accomplished double cadenza at the end of the Duke’s song to Gilda, “È il sol dell’anima,” and the turns at the ends of his phrases in his playful seduction of Maddalena, “Un dì se ben rammentomi,” at the beginning of the famed third-act quartet.

Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic plays Rigoletto with admirable attention to line, pulling his phrases here and there to match the moment’s emotions. This was most evident in his recollection of Gilda’s late mother, “Deh non parlare al misero,” and in his later plea to the courtiers, “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata.” Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak began the evening sounding a bit brittle, but went on to reveal extraordinary skills, including an otherwordly trill at the closing of “Caro nome” and the ghostly pianissimo high notes at the end of the death scene. Her second-act confession to her father was simply, emotionally, ravishing. Kurzak’s girlish features lent to the image of an innocent who must be guarded, and her small stature matched Demuro’s, making for an unusually believable body-bag.

Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli presents a Sparafucile of intimidating size, both physically and vocally. The final note of his introduction set off seismographs in Berkeley.

Director Harry Silverstein took an approach that was mostly conservative, using the courtiers as static tableux for the principals, but did choose his spots for comedy – such as a long-needed poke at the overdone addios between Gilda and Gualtier Malde in Act 1. The maid, Giovanna (mezzo Renée Rapier), made several attempts to wrestle the disguised Duke out the back door, finally yanking off his jacket. Another opportunity – a blinded Rigoletto holding the ladder for his own daughter’s abduction – went sadly unexploited.

Yeargan’s set has some amusing funhouse qualities. Rigoletto’s apartment slides onstage even as Rigoletto enters, and Sparafucile’s inn sports a wall of striking red blinds. Nicola Luisotti’s conducting was brisk and incredibly sharp. Luisotti is an animated figure, and a pleasure to watch. At one point, working the dynamics of the men’s chorus, he held up a hand as if he were holding a wineglass, then made the glass smaller and smaller as the chorus got quieter.

Through Sept. 30, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue. Alternating casts. $22-$340. 415/864-3330,

Images: Aleksandra Kurzak (Gilda). Željko Lučić (Rigoletto). Photos by Cory Weaver.

The opera will present a free simulcast of the production on the high-def scoreboard at AT&T Park, 8 p.m., Sept. 15. for details.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and the author of 13 novels, including Operaville, available at His poem, “How to Sing” will appear in the fall 2012 issue of the literary magazine Confrontation (Long Island University, Brookville NY).

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