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Rigoletto @ WNO

Carlos Álvarez as Rigoletto, Washington National Opera, 2008, photo by Karin Cooper
Carlos Álvarez as Rigoletto, Washington National Opera, 2008, photo by Karin Cooper
What a difference seven years can make! Two operas premiered at Venice's Teatro La Fenice, both with music by Giuseppe Verdi, both with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, both based on plays by Victor Hugo. Somewhere between Ernani (1844), under review last week at the Metropolitan Opera, and Rigoletto (1851), which opened on Saturday night at Washington National Opera, Verdi became a confident, ground-breaking opera composer. Part of that success was that Verdi was more dramatically shrewd, and his improving track record allowed him to dominate the creative relationship with Piave. Another component was that the story taken from Victor Hugo's play Le Roi s'amuse, was less complicated and yielded more operatic possibilities.

Still, the play was regarded as dangerously revolutionary, because it directly concerned the sexual peccadilloes of the great Renaissance king of France, François I, in whom Hugo was really criticizing Louis-Philippe. Verdi had to mollify the imperial censors in Venice by recasting the noble philanderer as the Duke of Mantua, rather than a king, but it was not Hugo's title character who most interested Verdi and Piave. It was the court jester, Triboulet, who became the center of this opera, named for his Italian counterpart, Rigoletto (the initial working title of the opera was La Maledizione, referring to the curse Monterone places on Rigoletto). Of course, the ban on Hugo's play had ensured that it was widely read, if not staged for many years. Eventually, Verdi's operatic adaptation was performed repeatedly in Paris, while the Hugo play was still officially banned, although everyone knew that the opera was based on Hugo's play.

Rigoletto is an audience favorite, and the company has lately been reviving it about every eight or nine years (the last productions were in 1999 and 1991). It does require a serious cast, which for the most part this one is, beginning with baritone Carlos Álvarez, who was vocally puissant and dramatically gripping in the title role. The character is a study in contradictions, which is part of what makes him so endlessly fascinating: Hugo said that Triboulet was so protective of his daughter because he himself was such an evil man and knew evil intimately. Piave's libretto (in English translation) and Verdi's score present him also as a flawed but vulnerable father, in spite of his faults, and in any case, we cannot possibly sympathize with the callous Duke and his amoral court.

Joseph Calleja (Duke of Mantua) and Lyubov Petrova (Gilda) in Rigoletto, Washington National Opera, 2008, photo by Karin Cooper
Joseph Calleja (Duke of Mantua) and Lyubov Petrova (Gilda) in Rigoletto, Washington National Opera, 2008, photo by Karin Cooper
Lyubov Petrova, whom we have admired before (two years ago in L'Italiana in Algeri and in concert) was a pretty and lyrically dulcet Gilda. While she was physically believable and vocally right for much of the softer parts of the role, she was underpowered for those parts that require her to soar above the full orchestra and other singers (like Bella figlia dell'amore in Act III), weakening some of the opera's emotional climaxes. Joseph Calleja's Duke was brassy and (appropriately) unsympathetic, physically reminiscent of the later portraits of Henry VIII. The voice is razor-edged, with a rapid-fire vibrato, the upper extent of which, at least, tends to be true to the pitch. (With any luck, we will eventually be able to hear Juan Diego Flórez sing the role, as he is doing right now in Peru.)

The other noteworthy performance was the truly terrifying Sparafucile of Andrea Silvestrelli, a bass gigantic of both stature and squillo, whom we last reviewed as Sarastro in Santa Fe. Conductor Giovanni Reggioli, formerly the head coach and music administrator for the WNO Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program from 2001 to 2004, presided over a competent performance from the orchestra. Some good solo work was heard from the flute section (Caro nome), the melancholy English horn (Miei signori, perdono, pietate in Act II), and the oboe. Reggioli also did well at restraining the male chorus's tendency to rush, although misalignments of ensemble abounded in Act I.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, WNO's 'Rigoletto': Needs Direction (Washington Post, March 31)

T. L. Ponick, This 'Rigoletto' a charmer (Washington Times, March 31)
This opera was also the Washington directorial debut of Catherine Malfitano, a much-admired singer who has recently been trying her hand at directing. Her style is about as traditionalist as they come, which will please the conservative audience but which leaves little interst for someone who has seen Rigoletto a few too many times. The sets (handsomely designed by Robert Dahlstrom in a Renaissance style) have been recycled from Seattle Opera, and the costumes (designed by Zack Brown) could fit into any generic Shakespeare production. In short, no one is going to come away from this production with any new ideas about Rigoletto. What Malfitano does do well, perhaps because of her own time on the stage, is direct the actions of the singers. Characters did more than simply stand and sing, and much of the detail and nuance of the story was related by gesture. This, at least, is preferable to a high-concept refashioning of the story that does not pay much attention to what is actually happening in the libretto.

Rigoletto runs through April 13, with two overlapping casts. See my review of the B cast in the Washington Post (April 3).


Karren Alenier said...

My taste runs to contemporary opera so I'm definitely not conservative nor exactly a big fan of the classical opera repertoire. I thoroughly enjoyed Malfitano's production of Rigoletto, but I especially appreciate what you said here about whether Malfitano provided any new ideas. I guess Anne Midgette meant to say something like this in her Washington Post review that panned Catherine Malfitano's direction.

Charles T. Downey said...

That is exactly what Anne Midgette was saying in her review, and I agree. Are you going up to New York for Satyagraha?