28 Sep 2012
Rigoletto in San Francisco
Four Rigolettos in nine days (for this critic), of twelve Rigolettos in 24 days (are these world records?).
“Man is an abyss. It makes one dizzy to look into it.” So utters Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, repeating what was also a recurring motif in the playwright’s own letters.
National Opera Company of the Rhine has marked this year’s Benjamin Britten celebration with a remarkably compelling, often gripping new production of the seldom-seen Owen Wingrave.
Once upon a time, Frankfurt Opera had the baddest ass reputation in Germany as “the” cutting edge producer of must-see opera.
Productions of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto can serve as a vehicle for individual singers to make a strong impression and become afterward associated with specific roles in the opera.
Just in case we were not aware that the evening’s programme was ‘themed’, the Britten Sinfonia designed a visual accompaniment to their musical exploration of night, sleep and dreams.
Poor Aida! She never seems to have anything go her way.
Is it possible to upstage Jonas Kaufmann? Kaufmann was brilliant in this Verdi Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, London, but the rest of the cast was so good that he was but first among equals. Don Carlo is a vehicle for stars, but this time the stars were everyone on stage and in the pit. Even the solo arias, glorious as they are, grow organically out of perfect ensemble. This was a performance that brought out the true beauty of Verdi's music.
The big names were absent: Duparc, D’Indy, Debussy, Ravel and while Fauré, Chausson, Roussel and several members of Les Six put in an appearance, in less than familiar guises, this survey of French song of the early 20th century and interwar years deliberately took us on a journey through infrequently travelled terrain.
Composed between 1718 and 1720, Handel’s Esther is sometimes described as the ‘first English Oratorio’, but is in fact a hybrid form, mixing elements of oratorio, masque, pastoral and opera.
Hector Berlioz's légende dramatique, La Damnation de Faust, exists somewhere between cantata and opera. Berlioz's flexible attitude to dramatic form made the piece unworkable on the stages of early 19th century Paris and his music is so vivid that you wonder whether the piece needs staging at all.
St. John’s Smith Square was the site of Elizabeth Connell’s final London concert, intended as a farewell to London on her moving to Australia. It was rendered ultimately final by her unexpected death.
With the building of the Suez Canal, Egypt became more interesting to Western Europeans. Khedive Ismail Pasha wanted a hymn by Verdi for the opening of a new opera house in Cairo, but the composer said he did not write occasional pieces.
Back for its fourth revival, David McVicar’s 2003 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte has much charm, beauty and artistry.
The economics of the recording companies dictate much that is not ideal. Wagner’s operas were not composed as they were in order to permit the extraction of bleeding chunks, even on those occasions when strophic song forms do occur.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro has a libretto by Lorenzo daPonte based on the French play La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (The Crazy Day or the Marriage of Figaro) by Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799).
For its world class Easter Festival, Baden-Baden mounted a Die Zauberflöte that owed more to the grey penitential doldrums of Lent than to the unbridled jubilance of re-birth.
Once Berkeley Opera, renamed West Edge Opera, this enterprising company offers the Bay Area’s only serious alternative to corporate opera, to wit Bonjour M. Gauguin.
In the first of pianist Julius Drake’s three-part series, ‘Perspectives’, our gaze was directed at Gustav Mahler’s eclectic musical responses to human experiences: from the trauma and distress of anguished love to the sweet contentment of true friendship, from the agonised introspection of the artist to the diverse dramas of human interaction.
The Los Angeles opera company marketed its spring production of Rossini's La Cenerentola as Cinderella though there is no opera by that name. The libretto of La Cenerentola is not the Cinderella story we know.
The Paris Opéra has not staged a full Ring Cycle since 1957, but its current season will conclude with a correction of this grand operatic gap.
Four Rigolettos in nine days (for this critic), of twelve Rigolettos in 24 days (are these world records?).
Major support for this San Francisco operatic extravaganza is provided by, among others, the Great Interpreters of Italian Opera Fund. Hyperbole, or not?
It is a qualified answer. That conductor Nicola Luisotti may join the ranks of, let us say, Toscanini and von Karajan (et al.) is yet to be determined. Luisotti is however Italian and this alone endows him with integrity as an interpreter of Italian opera. Based on the September 19 performance the maestro did indeed achieve some greatness.
Rigoletto may be the quintessential Italian opera sitting on the cusp between the glories of bel canto and the agonies of Romantic realism. Formally it is pure bel canto, the individual blocks (“numbers”), arias and duets are interrupted, then capped with a fast, determined “cabaletta.” The trios and quartets are vocally splendid and dramatically static. Finales (when things get done) are brief and to the point.
But add to bel canto the pathos of a cripple’s love for his daughter, the philosophic examination of love and the malevolence of fate. Francesco Piave’s libretto uses Monterone’s curse to close each act and explain why. It is rapid and violent melodrama.
Maestro Luisotti knows that Rigoletto is about beautiful singing, and he gives his singers all needed support based on the supposition that any aria is really a duet — for him and the singer. At its most dramatic were paroxysms of podium involvement in Gilda’s stunning Caro nome, and in the next act Rigoletto and Gilda’s wrenching duet that ends with Rigoletto’s Sì! Vendetta, tremenda vendetta. All this, needless to say, elicited paroxysms of instrumental involvement (the oboe obbligato in Gilda’s Tutte le feste al tempio as example). Tempos, always slower or faster than anticipated, served to generate genuine emotional immediacy obliterating the suspicion of conductorial willfulness. And hardly to be outdone in bel canto by the stage, the maestro imposed an full-voiced orchestral lyricism that took unrelenting flight throughout the evening.
Houston trained, Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova without qualification is a great interpreter of Gilda. While she has gained her international fame as Queen of the Night, her vocal endowment well encompasses much of the lyric repertoire. The facility and agility of her voice is enriched by a sizable palette of color and delivery that matches her dramatic concentration. Rarely has a singer so completely embodied the Gilda character. Time stood still in the adolescent musings of the young girl who had just had melismatic sex with the Duke (yes, the second act love duet was mesmerizing).
Arturo Chacón-Cruz as The Duke of Mantua and San Francisco Opera dancers
San Francisco trained, Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz was the over-sexed, heart-throb Duke of Mantua. With a voice that resides in color somewhere between the French and Italian repertoire and a technique that belies his youthfulness, he constructed Verdi’s vocal lines with precision and the hint of spinto that make tenors desirable lovers, ably seducing the splendidly drawn Countess Ceprano of Adler Fellow Laura Krumm as well as the production’s sympathetic, sexually ripe Maddalena, former Adler Fellow Kendall Gladden.
Italian baritone Marco Vratogna too achieves status as a great interpreter of Rigoletto, given that this twisted human is more, and in Mr. Vratogna’s case much more than a big voice who rages at the cortigiani. Mr. Vratogna’s Rigoletto is small in scale but, and maybe therefore, large in insinuation that more than a victim, Rigoletto is indeed an ugly soul in an ugly body. This compromises the blatant pathos that might be awarded a big voiced Rigoletto who will seem righteous by sheer volume. Mr. Vratogna uses his medium scaled voice of many colors and much Italianate style to make Rigoletto sinister, unsympathetic, maybe pitiful.
And very interesting.
On the other hand Canadian bass Robert Pomakov as Monterone roared his curses, quivering with rage, well anchoring the conciseness of the drama by sheer volume, abetted by Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli as the honest murderer Sparafucile, incomparable casting in both cases.
This San Francisco Opera production, designed by veteran American scenographer, now Yale professor, Michael Yeargan, debuted in 1997. Mr. Yeargan too assumes stature as a great interpreter of Italian opera with a set that echoes the conciseness of the dramatic action of Rigoletto in an abstracted, classically forced-perspective Italian street. Hard edge, repeated porticos are obsessive, sinister and overwhelming. Colors are saturated, basic and bright when not cast as dim, sinister washes on the buildings. The set is minimal, no props (save one chair in the third act). The set functions with almost machine-like precision. Like Verdi’s Rigoletto.
Because of the number and proximity of performances San Francisco Opera must provide two sets of principals. On September 11 I saw Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic as Rigoletto, Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak as Gilda and Italian tenor Francesco Demuro as the Duke. Mr. Lucic is a big voiced Rigoletto whose well focused tone did not waver over the course of events resulting in a hunchback of little interest, though Cortigiani, vil razza dannata was hurled with maximum vehemence. Mme. Kurzak is a brilliant singer whose musicianship is abstract rather than dramatic, and while she did make music with maestro Luisotti she made no attempt whatsoever to impersonate Verdi’s vulnerable heroine. Mr. Demuro is an ideal Duke, good looking with a bona fide tenorial swagger. He possesses a light voice that too easily negotiates the Duke’s high tessitura with little of the vocal excitement that makes the Duke musically and dramatically alive.
At this performance the brilliant colors of the set seemed abrasive, the costumes seemed ridiculous and the staging by Harry Silverstein seemed to try too hard to make something out of nothing. In retrospect this reaction was caused by the non-involvement of the principals in their characters.
On September 12 I saw the cast described in the body of this review. At this performance the staging by Mr. Silverstein redeemed itself as a totally competent management of the chorus scenes, if more complicated than Verdi’s direct story telling ideally requires. The principal scenes seemed more detailed than the incipient realism of middle-period Verdi provokes (but, hey, opera these days is supposed to be “acted” — the exception was Mr. Vratogna’s Rigoletto effected with minimum gesture and maximum vocal physicality). In particular the Gilda of Mme. Shagimuratova seemed artful rather than felt in her final scenes.
On September 15 the Lucic/Kurzak/Demuro cast was again on stage at the War Memorial opera house and on the scoreboard of the local ball park, home of the SF Giants, where 27,000 spectators and I braved the cold for the duration (other years have been far warmer in temperature and far warmer musically). The format requires much focus on faces and acoustical manipulation of voices exposing the limitations of this cast. Mr. Demuro however seemed a natural born TV actor, to the degree that there was the suspicion he might be playing himself.
On September 19, above, it was all pure magic. Go figure. There are four more performances but I’m stopping while I’m ahead.