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Jun 8, 2017 |
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San Francisco Opera opens summer season with Rigoletto

Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
The summer season at the San Francisco Opera began this week with a production of Verdi’s Rigoletto. For this installment, I decided that after seeing Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer at Seattle opera last year, Verdi deserved some renewed attention (after reviewing Macbeth two years ago).

            Verdi and Wagner are the Coke/Pepsi of opera. Some people have strong opinions about whom they prefer. I tend to be a little more fickle and enjoy both composers’ works when performed well. There is no doubt that on this night, the San Francisco Opera allowed the brilliance of Verdi to shine through.

            The current production debuted in 1997, using a stage with incredible depth and a good rake to it, which served to set the scene well with a feeling of spaciousness and grandeur. However, I did not enjoy the stark nature of the set. I understand the idea that the dark foreboding nature tells us that ‘all is not right’. But, it seemed outdated, exhibiting a mid-1990s insecurity about the direction of set design, purposefully moving away from the elaborate designs of the 60s and 70s toward the bare and edgy European sets of the late twentieth century. The Bauhaus-inspired railings and solid walls were in marked contrast to the Rococo nature of the costumes. There was a noticeable lack of cohesion, as costuming was clearly not on the same page as set design—or so it seemed. By contrast, the lighting was excellent and completely saved the set, in my opinion.

            The first star on this night goes to the orchestra. Verdi weaves his tales and characters through music. Sadly, I have been to too many productions whereby the orchestra barrels through the opera with its own obvious agenda. Tonight, however, the orchestra always listened sensitively to the singers and both colors and drama were on full display. At times, Verdi demands a heavy hand in order to bring out the drama, but also a light touch to highlight the singers. Tonight, the orchestra had this delicate balance all evening.

            The singers who particularly stood out were those who were conservative, performing the roles ‘how we expect to see them,’ but also adding their own mark on the music. With this in mind, the singing star this evening was soprano Nino Machaidze who played Gilda. Her voice filled the hall and her portrayal of Gilda brought the right combination of attractiveness and naïveté needed to contrast her bumbling, cynical, and fearful father. Her performance of “Caro nome” was remarkable for the amount of musicality she poured into the line and the originality that she found in her interpretation. Indeed, teachers and directors hear this aria at every audition and it was very nice to witness Machaidze surprise (but not shock) her audience with a few new ideas. A subtle crescendo here and an unexpected turn there was most welcome by this listener.

            The Duke of Mantua was sung by Pene Pati. In addition to having a very pleasant traditional Italian tenor sound, he was an excellent actor. He had a couple of wayward moments, but I enjoyed his freewheeling style and with any high wire act, there are going to be some wobbles.

            Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey performed Rigoletto. He possessed a beautiful lyric voice, which was accurate, but at times lacked the ‘cut’ or power of the other singers. I am surprised that his was the kind of voice preferred for this Verdi baritone role. However, I do enjoy Verdi sung lyrically, especially given that his middle oeuvre sits squarely in the bel canto tradition—only a decade away from the prime of composers Bellini and Donizetti. With Kelsey in particular, the orchestra did a fine job of supporting the singer throughout the opera.

            Another standout of the evening was Andrea Silvestrelli as Sparafucile. His menacing presence and sheer size filled the stage. His voice had a dark and interesting quality with the wonderful ability to float in the middle and upper range, giving his character a cold and calculated color.

            Rigoletto continues at the San Francisco Opera until July 1st.


Dr. Anthony P. Radford, California State University, Fresno


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