The San Francisco Opera, one of the big American houses that has exhibited commendable fiscal resourcefulness while maintaining its artistic standards, selected a conservative opener for its 90th season with a revival of its de Chirico-inspired production of Rigoletto. During these tough economic times, trotting out an old warhorse, by itself, is no strategy for the long-view, but the company introduced a twist to get the most out of Verdi's tale of vengeance. The opera will be staged in a stagione-style block throughout the month while other works will rotate in a repertory schedule beginning in October.
Four straight weeks of Rigoletto with performances often on consecutive nights, of course, necessitate two casts to share the principal roles. I heard the second cast and, in terms of singing, it would be unfair to call these performers as a whole second-stringers or the "B cast." In fact, there were some opulent voices on display, especially in the cases of Gilda (Albina Shagimuratova) and Rigoletto (Marco Vratogna), but what this cast had in voice found little complement in dramatic verisimilitude. Chemistry—that mysterious component that can make a strong performance an unforgettable one—was also in short supply and the opera's many smashing duets utterly failed to engage on a dramatic level. The crucial relationship between Rigoletto and his daughter Gilda played like one of those golden-era cliches: two singers holding one another by the arms and singing divinely at each other. Since 2006, the phrase "park and bark" has been one of the most overused and crass stereotypes applied to opera, but, sadly, it was a justifiably apt tag for this performance. With many performances still ahead for this cast to acclimatize to the production and each other, I assume this aspect will improve as the run progresses.
In opera, however, the music comes first and we were fortunate to have so vocally accomplished a Gilda as Shagimuratova. The soprano, who made her debut with the company only a few months ago as an outstanding Queen of the Night (The Magic Flute), approached Verdi's innocent heroine with a similar emphasis on sedentary delivery. Gifted with a voice of tremendous size and power, she exhibited considerable control of it, at times tapering to a lovely pianissimo that drew me forward in my chair to hear the secure, pretty tone. Though the stage business during "Caro nome" is always problematic, Shagimuratova's unconvincing physical deportment of standing, sitting on a box, and lying on her back, was easily overshadowed by her beautifully sustained vocalism.
Vratogna's portrayal of the title role was equally superficial in action, but offered several vocal highlights. At times he seemed to forget to employ the Rigoletto gait or give any idea of his character's physical deformity and incongruously cut a dashing figure in spite of his ratty attire and unexplained hump. Vratogna's baritone exhibited attractive timbral variety which he, at times, used effectively to communicate Rigoletto's tortured predicament. Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz made his company debut on this occasion as the Duke. Handsome enough to be a convincing rake, the tenor contributed little to elevate the dramatic level of the proceedings, but, then again, Dukes rarely contribute much in that department. Chacón-Cruz's vocal performance was respectable, sounding best in "Parmi veder la lagrima," when showing off his nice upper register. Those unsavory siblings on the outskirts of town, Sparafucile and Maddalena, were appropriately vile and unsympathetic characters in the hands of Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli and American mezzo-soprano Kendall Gladen. Robert Pomakov as Monterone and Joo Won Kang as Marullo distinguished themselves in their parts with effective acting and singing.
The common threads among September's Rigoletto performances will be the sure-handed conducting of music director Nicola Luisotti and the playing of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. Luisotti's demonstrated reliability for leading inspired readings of Verdi's works was again in evidence and he brought drama to the performance whenever the principals allowed the intensity to sag. Clearly holding the singers in his protective, outstretched hands, the maestro held the orchestra's fury in check and unleashed it appropriately. During Rigoletto's "Cortigiani," for example, Luisotti was careful not to cover his singer with too much sound, while during the storm and Gilda's murder he let his musicians loose with savage intensity and volume.
Harry Silverstein's production still looks good. Its efficient, perspective enforcing sets by Michael Yeargan, lit in acidic yellows and deep sea blues, create a chilling, murky atmosphere. Constance Hoffman's rich and detailed costumes are another asset. The anonymity of the courtiers, outfitted with masks to complement their finery in the first scene, contributed a malignant quality to their upscale, yet depraved cavorting.