Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Hits and misses on a fine, brooding piece of art in LA Opera’s Rigoletto relic

Back in 1997 on a visit to San Francisco, I remember being enraptured by a new production of Rigoletto at San Francisco Opera. Inspired by the Surrealism-influencing artist Giorgio di Chirico’s motifs of empty piazzas, arcaded architecture and long-cast shadows, Rigoletto’s dark plot seemed to be a perfect match for the atmosphere of mystery and gloom pervading the production’s concept.

Ambrogio Maestri as Rigoletto
I next happily chanced upon it in 2010 at LA Opera and, low and behold, it’s the same production - 21 years since it premiered - now on the stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion once again. In between, so many other stagings of Rigoletto may be remembered for perhaps being more intensely felt, but this production still has the potential to illuminate the brooding nature of the piece. 

Prolific designer Michael Yeargan’s sets  are meticulously dimensioned to evoke de Chirico’s world and Rigoletto’s tragedy as well as provide spatial interest and heightened perspective on an inclined stage for director Mark Lamos. Rigoletto’s rolled-in, two-levelled and bare, blood-red house interior, in contrast, seemed an afterthought. Constance Hoffman’s luxurious costumes imaginatively reference librettist Francesco Maria Piave’s Renaissance setting of Mantua (via Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse), while Robert Wierzel’s vivid glowing colours establish both mood and time to great effect. Lamos’ direction fist the bigger picture well but the potential was often there to better dramatise crucial details, notably in Act III’s climactic storm scene in which Gilda’s murder is seemingly censored by darkness for too long as she enters Sparafucile’s house. 

Accomplished singers Juan Jesús Rodríguez (Rigoletto), Lisette Oropesa (Gilda) and Arturo Chacón-Cruz (Duke of Mantua) opened the current season on 12th May. For this performance reviewed on Sunday - and the remaining two - Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri, Romanian soprano Adela Zahari and American tenor Michael Fabiano have taken over the principal roles, adding emotional colour in various degrees to the de Chirico palette.

Chorus Director Grant Gershon had his men and women of Mantua solidly prepared for their corrupted court life. In the title role, however, the large-framed Maestri moved sluggishly in his bulbous and hunched depiction of Rigoletto but that may have been due to a lack of direction needed to infuse Rigoletto with convincing purpose. Why, in the music's frenzy, was there neglect in his search to take a short flight of steps to his daughter Gilda’s room after her kidnapping? Overall, Rigoletto’s complex character struggled to come to the surface. Vocally, Maestri’s rich and smoky baritone showed much appeal and came with impressive diction, phrasing and long finishing notes. But the top of the voice exhibited discomfort more than once, shattering belief that the stamina was there to reach the grieving end. 

Michael Fabiano as the Duke of Mantua, Rigoletto
As the womanising Duke of Mantua, Fabiano easily looked and convincingly acted the part - from deceiving the vulnerable and innocent Gilda in tender romance to deriving sexual pleasure with the mistreated whore Maddalena. Fabiano sports the lung-power to effortlessly reach the far corners of a voluminous theatre the likes of New York’s Met where he regularly performs. For his LA Opera debut in the 3000-plus capacity of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, no shortage of passion accompanied Fabiano’s vocal performance - and that’s what the audience loved - but warmth and nuance were a little less on hand to balance and compliment the imposing muscularity. 

It was Zahari’s shimmering pure tones, suppleness of voice and sympathetically executed depiction of Gilda that made her performance stand out for its unerring strength and consistency. Last year’s Operalia winner, Zahara swept through her music with grace and beauty as she deftly revealed her character’s psychological strain - one that would recklessly give her life in place of a cheating man she refused not to love. Zahara made even more telling the hopeless sense of freedom Gilda feels under the suspicious eye of an overprotective father in a hint that her reasoning was damaged as much by her ‘imprisonment’ as by her sweetheart’s deception. It was in Zahara’s shared scenes with Ambrosi and Fabiano where the night’s most convincing pairings occurred. And, believing the duke to be a poor student in the contemplative coloratura aria “Gualtier Maldè!... Caro nome", Zahara’s luminous delivery, smooth phrasing and exquisitely contoured delicate vibrato exemplified the faculty she has in bringing touching interpretation to her art.

Ambrogio Maestri as Rigoletto and Adela Zahari as Gilda, Rigoletto
As Count Monterone, robust bass Craig Colclough thundered in appropriate chilling manner with the threatening curse that so obsessed the plagued Rigoletto and, on taking the stage midway through the first scene, raised the drama single-handedly. As the other more cavernous bass, Morris Robinson reliably cloaked the murderous Sparafucile in sinister form and dark mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson sung with luscious excellence as Sparafucile’s accomplice and seductive sister, Maddalena. 

In the pit, the excitement abounded with young and energetic conductor Matthew Aucoin whipping up a thrilling sense of drama. Aucoin’s approach displays a refreshing instinct to shift dramatic focus when needed and his sensitivity in keeping his singers buoyantly on top of the LA Opera Orchestra - faultless musicianship on that note - was clearly evident. After it was all done, however, it will be my first impressions of 21 years ago, not by pictorial setting alone, that will live on in having brought fulfilment to the work’s dark and disturbing aspect.

LA Opera 
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Music Center 
Until 3rd June, 2018

Production Photos: Karen  Almond

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