Monday, September 8, 2014

Opera San Jose's Rigoletto

Kirk Dougherty as the Duke of Mantua and Isabella Ivy as Gilda. Photo by Pat Kirk.
Sept. 7, 2014

One benefit of the rocker/operaista lifestyle is the lovely area of interconnection, which today found me walking into the gorgeous California Theater with a line from last night’s gig running through my head: “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth of taste…”

That’s “Sympathy for the Devil,” and there’s no better description of the Duke of Mantua, who possesses that troubling ability to convince himself that he actually is falling in love every time he’s trying to bed another countess. In Sunday’s performance, the dark humor was particularly potent, perhaps because the senior audience knew all about the Duke ahead of time, When he entered for the second act, lamenting the lost opportunity with Gilda, the snickers were thick on lines like “Where can she be, she who inspired me to constancy?” (for all of 15 minutes?).

The scene was a high point for tenor Kirk Dougherty, who owns a potent instrument but often seemed to be pushing. This might have been due to Opera San Jose’s opening-weekend schedule, which calls for a tough Saturday night/Sunday matinee combo (with the exception of the double-cast Rigoletto). Dougherty’s other battle was a symptom of young-singerness, a habit of being a little too Vogue-like (strike a pose!) in moments of passion. He was much better in in calmer, rakish moments, as when the Duke was awaiting his “appointment” with Maddalena (mezzo Lisa Chavez).

Another young-singer case (OSJ has a number of newbies this year) was soprano Isabella Ivy, who sometimes looked unsure in her movements but makes up for it with a fantastic stage name and a bee-yootiful voice. It began to make itself known in the duets with Rigoletto and the Duke (in his poor-guy disguise), then came to full blossom in the lilting “Caro nome.” In the cadenza, she revealed an effortless, angelic top range, and finished, rather provocatively, while singing on her back. Ivy also possesses eyes that get real big, which is a useful bit of stage weaponry.

Matthew Hanscom as Rigoletto (not reviewed here). Photo by Pat Kirk.
Rigoletto-wise, we have the veteran baritone Evan Brummel, who does an excellent job of pissing off all the courtiers in the opening scene, employing a handful of gags from stage director Brad Dalton. In one move, he trips a nobleman and then, pretending to help him up, succeeds in getting the poor guy to (quite literally) kiss his butt. Vocally, Brummel draws on a favorite device, a powerful crescendo, to accentuate the general feeling of forbidding, once as he’s tormenting the condemned Monterone. He also inspires much sympathy as he pleads with Marullo for information about Rigoletto’s abducted daughter.

All hail the men’s chorus! This being the only opera I’ve actually performed in, I know how those dotted-note choruses can gallop away from you, and Andrew Whitfield’s charges hold steady. Another excellence is the set design of Steven Kemp, which offers a luxurious purple-and-black court and Sparafucile’s black, smoke-imbued hovel. Another good, small touch are the Carnaval-style masks used by the night-raiding courtiers – and the comical donkey mask given to the duped jester. Conductor/artistic director Joseph Marcheso did a superb job with the orchestra, particularly with that overture, which always seems to capture the entire emotional journey of the opera in a few brief minutes. The darkest laugh of all is the moment when Rigoletto, dragging away what he assumes to be the corpse of the Duke, hears him singing “La donna e mobile” in the distance. You almost hate to laugh in that moment, but it’s impossible not to.

My personal epiphany for this performance was the way that Verdi establishes a third-act bit of flute birdsong to accompany his lightning strikes, then brings them back just at the right time for Rigoletto to identify the victim of his hired assassin. (Clever, that Verdi!) A rather more topical thought arrived when the Duke, after a particularly cruel jest, told Rigoletto, “You take it too far!” A comment that Joan Rivers likely received many times. The gags also wander freely into Raunchytown; the clown-on-a-stick gets more stroking than a Wimbledon final.

It’s a time of great change for OSJ, with founding diva Irene Dalis retiring and longtime Largo factotum Larry Hancock assuming the position of general director. Hancock expressed relief that his first production had a successful opening night. As for Miss Dalis, she’s enjoying watching performances without having to constantly think of possible improvements, and (everyone can relate to this) she does not miss going to all those meetings.

Through Sept. 21, California Theater, 245 S. First St., San Jose. $51-$111, 408/437-4450,

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year opera critic and author of the best-selling novel The Popcorn Girl.

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