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Pocket Opera Rigoletto

July 7, 2006

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Miniature Marvel

By Kip Cranna

Call it "grand opera" if you like, but Rigoletto even on a miniature scale can still succeed. Just ask Donald Pippin, whose plucky Pocket Opera concluded its 29th season over the weekend, ending its six-opera lineup with its final performances of Verdi's Rigoletto, heard Friday at the Legion of Honor's jewel-box Florence Gould Theater. Adhering to the company's self-professed "just the basics" approach to opera presentation, this Rigoletto featured excellent singing in a determinedly minimalist production, delivered — as is the norm for this group — in Pippin's own English translation.

Modest though the production values may be, Pocket Opera's current trend toward staged and costumed shows performed from memory represents an evolutionary leap from its originally practiced straight-on concert format.

Artistic Director Donald Pippin
Photo: Bob Shomler

As always, the indefatigable Pippin presided from the piano, managing a miniorchestra of eight industrious instrumentalists, placed upstage behind the singers. With his back to his cast, Pippin's opportunities for eye contact with them were nil, requiring him to rely on only the most rudimentary of signals. The result was a kind of chamber-music Rigoletto, with all the participants carefully feeling their way and taking pains to listen preemptively for one another. The surprise was not that this arrangement provided splendid coordination (it didn't), but that it worked at all. Reasonable ensemble prevailed much of the time, but this conductorless, nearly leaderless context meant that only cautious, moderate tempi were possible. Passages demanding urgency became necessarily tamer, and normally weighty tempi become less so. The phenomenon was notable from the start, as the ominous prelude came off as a bit hurried, missing some of its foreboding quality.

Mondle shines

Still, the singers gamely contended with the challenges of the situation. Vocally, the standout was Calcutta-born baritone Shouvik Mondle in the title role. A graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Mondle has at his command a sonorous, pliant vocalism capable of rich coloration, though it needed more legato at times. He couldn't always resist oversinging in this diminutive hall of about 330 seats. Sporting a barely discernible hump, his deformed jester seemed more afflicted with a pesky limp.

Mondle's best moments were in the father-daughter duets with Heidi Moss, whose Gilda brought appealing innocence as well as a lucid tone backed by solid technique, with just a few moments of uncertain pitch. Her Caro nome was assured and agile, and in her final duet with Rigoletto, as the dying heroine who sacrifices her life for the cad she still loves, her soaring phrases made singing while wrapped in the assassin's burlap bag seem easy as pie.

The Duke of Mantua, the devil-may-care lecher who seduces Gilda and casts her aside, was engagingly performed by current Conservatory student Pedro Betancourt, in his first major operatic role. Though his inexperience was palpable, particularly in some strained top notes, Betancourt's appealingly mellifluous tenor voice delivers plenty of luster and ring, even when slightly under pitch. This is a young artist of clear potential whose innate gifts seem to be crying out for more guidance toward technical mastery. In the tenor's third-act aria, Parmi veder le lagrimi, expressing the Duke's genuine regret at Gilda's abduction (while unaware that she has been brought to his own chambers), Betancourt managed a winsome tone despite inconsistent support.

Betancourt's boyishly charming Duke was a rather diffident fellow, seeming a little reluctant to get too close to the ladies he woos (Countess Ceprano, Gilda, Maddalena), and perhaps a little too polite. But there was plenty of allure in the voice. He wisely avoided the optional cadenza and full-voiced high B at the end of La donna è mobile but did pull off a creditably feathered high B in his later offstage reprise.

An effective cast and setting

Bass Roger McCracken, veteran of several Pocket Opera seasons, offered a goodly amount of menace as the assassin Sparafucile and boasted the best enunciation of the evening. As the curse-giving father Monterone, Mel Leroy was physically commanding, though affected by some of the same sagging pitch that afflicted others throughout the night.

In the other men's roles, the trio consisting of Bradley Kynard (Borsa), Julio Ferrari (Marullo), and Eric Carter (Count Ceprano) performed gamely as a minichorus, with Kynard's imposing tenor making a notable contribution with plenty of zing. Mezzo Kathleen Moss was a wary Countess Ceprano and a sexy Maddalena, while Rosalee Szabo served double duty in the roles of the maid Giovanna and the Page.

Stage Director Rod Gomez maneuvered his singers — dressed in simple period costumes by Jennifer La Morgese — around a bare-bones set consisting of six large black cubes, variously placed to become benches and walls.

Indifferent diction for a clever text

Pippin's translation, one of several dozen he has created and makes available for rental, was characteristically clever and apt, and notable for some inventive rhymes, particularly in the tenor's popular La donna è mobile, a discourse on the fickleness of women in which, in this rendering, the words così fan tutte somehow crop up.

More's the pity that projecting this vernacular text seemed a low priority for most of the singers, particularly given the intimacy of the hall. Only by virtue of its convenient periodic repetition, for example, could I decipher Pippin's version of Rigoletto's obsessive plaint "Quel vecchio malediva mi!" It turned out, appropriately enough, to be "That father's curse hangs over me!" (To be fair, though, the diction situation improved considerably as the evening progressed.)

As if to make up for a certain lack of intelligibility, Pippin proffered one of his dryly succinct narrations at the beginning of each of the four acts, helping to set the scene. Given the subject matter, his précis was less ironic than usual, although he did wryly suggest that the Duke's habit of encountering Gilda on her trips to church would today be considered stalking.

The large and enthusiastic crowd was treated to an advance announcement of the repertoire for Pocket Opera's 2006-2007 season, consisting of Offenbach's The Bandits (Les Brigands), Flotow's Martha (once a staple of the repertoire, now a genuine rarity), Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, Mozart's Così fan tutte, and Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

(Clifford [Kip] Cranna is musical administrator of the San Francisco Opera and lectures frequently on music appreciation.)

©2006 Kip Cranna, all rights reserved