Thursday, January 16, 2014

Seattle Opera's Rigoletto fits Mussolini era like a glove

Marco Vratogna as Rigoletto
  © Elise Bakketun photo

Putting the action squarely in the Italy during the reign of Mussolini, the Seattle Opera production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” didn’t miss a beat with solid singing and acting at McCaw Hall on opening night, January 11th. This “Rigoletto,” with sets designed by Robert Dahlstrom, costumes by Marie Anne Chiment, and directions by Linda Brovsky, was a remounting of the production that Seattle Opera premiered in 2004. It has since seen successful runs at the opera houses in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati; so it was high time that Seattle audiences got to experience it again with a different cast.
Originally taken from a play by Victor Hugo, “Rigoletto” is a melodrama in which a hunchbacked but quick witted jester (Rigoletto) tries in vain to sequester his teenage daughter (Gilda) from the clutches of his employer, the Duke of Mantua.  Rigoletto is duped into helping the Duke’s men abduct Gilda, and, in the end, she sacrifices herself so that the Duke isn’t killed by the assassin (Sparafucile), who Rigoletto hired. Despite the story’s flaws, Verdi’s evocative music hits the emotional content straight on and heightens the tragedy. That’s why this opera has always been one of the most popular in the repertoire.
Baritone Marco Vratogna embodied the title role with changing from one moment to the next to express gravitas, pride, pathos, suspiciousness, self-loathing, and vengeance. As the opera progressed, his voice seemed weighted down by a sense of doom. Nadine Sierra was the real deal as Gilda. She had sweetness, power, agility – just plain gorgeous singing. She could narrow her voice and bring it down to a hush or open it up so that it could soar over the quartet ensembles and orchestra.
Francesco Demuro had a natural swagger as the Duke and his voice rang out, but it never seemed free at the top. He started out well with a robust “Questa o quella” but his “La donna é mobile” felt forced. Then again, sometimes I think that our ears are jaded by the many superb recordings, and perhaps we expect way too much.
Andrea Silvestrelli’s Sparafucile was absolutely awesome. The first few words that came from him were so spooky and resonant that they set everyone’s ears on edge. From that point onward, the audience followed everything that he sang and did like a hawk.
Another attention getter was Sarah Larsen’s sultry Maddalena, who sang beautifully while being pawed by the Duke. Donovan Singletary distinguished himself in the role of Monterone, the count who is pistol whipped by the Duke’s men.  Wonderful contributions by Doug Jones, Carissa  Castaldo, Glenn Guhr, Barry Johnson, Emily Clubb, and Michael Dunlap rounded out the strong cast.
Act II featured the most striking scenery of the opera. It depicted a grand room in the Duke’s palace with huge portraits of the Trojan Horse and conquering Greeks in the background. The foreground was dominated by a large portrait of the Duke, reclining in opulence with a sense of self-satisfaction.   
Linda Brovsky’s directions made the story quite clear, and some of the added touches were very effective, like the fascistic salute of the Duke’s men when they mocked Rigoletto. But it was odd when – in the scene where they left the room after Gilda was reunited with her father – one of the men demonstrably placed his pistol on a table. None of the men of that ilk would ever leave a weapon behind unless they were dead drunk. Rigoletto, crazed with vengeance picked up the gun. I thought that he might take aim at the Duke’s portrait but instead he aimed it briefly at Gilda. That worked dramatically, but it still seemed weird.
Conductor Riccardo Frizza led the Seattle Opera Orchestra with a keen sense of dynamics. The singers were always heard above the orchestra, even when all were going full tilt.  It would be difficult to find another orchestra that could play this music any better.
Overall, this interpretation by Seattle Opera of Verdi’s timeless melodrama fit the Italy of “Il Duce” like a glove. Perhaps someone will update it next time to “bunga bunga” era of Silvio Berlusconi.

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