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Rigoletto Meets the Mob

April 19, 2009

San Francisco Lyric Opera

Twenty minutes after the scheduled beginning of San Francisco Lyric Opera’s matinee performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto, General Manager Bob Scher stepped before the Cowell Theater curtain to speak. Thank God, the delay was due, not to a last-minute indisposition, but to the late, “I’m sure she’ll be here any minute,” arrival of a violinist. Scher then made a most genteel and agreeable pitch for the company’s goal of raising $1.5 million by the end of 2010. “We have a vision of being the best regional opera company in the U.S.,” he said with utter sincerity.

Without knowing how anyone could possibly make a credible assessment of regional opera company quality in all 50 states, I focused my attention on a production that was undoubtedly meant to indicate things to come. The curtain opened, not on a room in the Duke’s palace in 16th-century Mantua, but instead on scenic designer Jean-François Revon and director Attila Béres’ take on a dark, 20th-century Chicago gangster-era nightclub. (Perhaps it was a subterranean bar in the Duke’s sprawling palace, complete with industrial steel beams, tables, and chain link fencing, that seemed to cage people in.)

The choristers, sporting perfect period-costumes by Meghan Muser and given unspoken names like Mr. Big, Boobie, Hymie, Motormouth Maggie, Iceman, Tokyo Joe, Vera, and Gaspipe John, were engaged in enough simulated sex to require parental guidance notification. Not that there were any children in the audience on an 80-degree sunny spring afternoon.

In came the Duke, eventually followed by characters with the familiar names of Countess Ceprano, Rigoletto, Monterone, Gilda. Even as the transposition underscored the story’s malevolence, my mind struggled to overlook the incongruities. After the humping was complete, the submachine guns were lowered, and the caressing during the Duke’s first major aria was at an end, it was finally possible to focus on the music.

Voices to the ForeIt’s easy to overlook just how difficult Verdi’s writing is until you hear singers who are not quite there. Our Duke, Jesús León, is a natural tenor with an unforced top and the ability to sustain a high notes for an impressive length of time. The graduate of a number of prestigious opera programs is also a natural onstage, totally believable as a philandering lover, able to maintain focus in “Questa o quella” (Neither is any different) as two women ran their hands all over his face and body, and handsome enough to seduce the innocent Gilda into sacrificing her life for him. But despite the ease and beauty of his fresh, clear voice, and his obvious understanding of Italian style, his essentially lyric instrument lacks sufficient squillo (ring) and force on top for Verdi. I’d love to hear him again in oratorio, in art song (if he has the knack), or perhaps in Mozart — anything that doesn’t require the big punch that he can’t quite deliver.

A similar problem arose with our Rigoletto, David Cox. He did a wonderful job leaning on his crutches and walking as though disabled, but his voice neither cut to the heart nor rose to the top without strain and loss of volume. Cox clearly felt the part, but what was inside did not make it across the footlights.

His daughter Gilda, sung by Rebecca Sjöwall, showed real promise. Lovely to look at, with a bearing and countenance that I hope will grow more animated with additional stage experience, the two-time District Winner in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions recently received her master’s of music in vocal performance from UCLA. The voice grows lovelier and stronger as it rises far above the stave, culminating in an impressive high E-flat.

She must negotiate coloratura carefully, or so it seems, choosing a slow tempo for “Caro nome” (Beloved name), simplifying some of the fioriture toward the end, and displaying a modest trill. She also needs to find ways to interact more with her partners — her first duet with her father, Rigoletto, seemed less a dialogue than two people standing beside each other singing all the right notes. Still, the loveliness of her singing counted for much.

In smaller roles Sergey Zadvorny (Monterone /Sparafucile) sang with such tonal beauty and authority that I wished he could have sung a larger role. (He was quite impressive as the Commendatore in SFLO’s recent Don Giovanni). Kindra Scharich was ideal as Maddalena; her body and voice were equally seductive, with enough dark mystery to the tone to recommend her for larger roles. Corrine Wallace did a fine job as Giovanna; her online vocal clips suggest great potential. Martin Bell (Marullo), Andy Cox (Count Ceprano), Jeff Bennett (Borsa), and young Jack Lundquist (Page) sang their small roles well, though the latter two were hard to hear.

Artistic Director and Conductor Barnaby Palmer’s choice of tempos was always judicious. Any conductor who treats the great quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore” (Fairest daughter of love) as poetry rather than as a strict-time throwaway deserves kudos, in my book. Although I wish Sjöwall had taken the optional high ending, the ensemble was one of the high points of a performance that impressed more for individual elements than overall impact.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.