If your interest in opera is based to some extent on ornately beautiful sets and elegant costumes, San Francisco Opera's staging of Rigoletto is probably not the performance for you. But if you love Verdi's inventive music, enjoy fabulous male voices in particular, and appreciate great opera conducting with exquisitely sensitive orchestral playing – then this Rigoletto is a must.

Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto) and Nino Machaidze (Gilda) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto) and Nino Machaidze (Gilda)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

The Shakespearean-like tragedy of the title character is movingly portrayed by Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey, who is deservedly becoming known worldwide as a Verdi specialist. Possessing a very impressive range, he navigates the vocal challenges of the role with consumate ease, impeccable pitch and an expressive variety of timbres. Even more importantly, he absolutely embodies the role in all of its psychological, personal and spiritual aspects, not just portraying the character but expressing it from within, using the music that Verdi created as the delivery vehicle. One cannot imagine a better performance of the title role.

Tenor Pene Pati made his San Francisco Opera debut as the Duke of Mantua. This young man, a second year SF Opera Adler Fellow and 2013 Merola Opera Program singer from Auckland, was an absolute revelation. He has a sweet, honeyed timbre and his top notes appear to be effortless. His phrasing, expression and breath control are superb, and one small vocal run that went a bit pitch-wayward in a duet with Gilda did not mar the overall impression. 

Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze had gorgeous top notes in lyrical sections when the musical writing allowed her to soar above her two male counterparts. But in other places her voice generally took on a slightly strained, harder edge, most often in faster passages or when trying to project. Ms Machaidze possesses an endearing personality but seemed a bit miscast in both vocal power and charisma. 

Nino Machaidze (Gilda) and Pene Pati (Duke of Mantua) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Nino Machaidze (Gilda) and Pene Pati (Duke of Mantua)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

There was also a third tremendous male singer to steal the spotlight in this production: Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli singing Sparafucile, the innkeeper and contract killer, every note positively spine-chilling and irresistible. His acting and body language, even while just standing still, was powerfully magnetic and expressive, drawing all eyes whenever he was on stage. 

It was wonderful to see (and hear) local star Buffy Baggott shine in the role of Giovanna, and several Metropolitan Opera winners and Adler Fellows making their San Francisco Opera debuts in the "smaller" roles. They all had nice voices and confident stage presence, but tended to get buried, vocally, especially when singing descending phrases or whenever their melodic lines concluded on lower notes. These normal "projection" challenges for younger singers will be erased with time and experience, and the summer seasons that so many national opera companies have today are the perfect way for that education and experience to happen. 

There was no question of experience, and indeed expertise, with the San Francisco Opera chorus, directed by Ian Robertson. When singing the rhythmically exacting male choruses that Verdi composed for this opera, they were absolutely superb. On only a few occassions, where Verdi's composition calls for very fast notes (and words) to be sung in the lower registers, they were in danger of being swallowed up by the unduly heavy orchestral score; but this was therefore no reflection on the chorus, nor on the normally-sensitive orchestral balance obtained by their Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti, who is clearly beloved by San Francisco audiences and will be honored at farewell events later this year when he leaves the SF Opera Music Director position that he has held since 2009. 

Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto) and Nino Machaidze (Gilda) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto) and Nino Machaidze (Gilda)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Opening night nerves only rarely got the better of the solo musicians; the opening trumpet, for example, sounded quite tentative and insecure rather than expressive or foreboding, but special mention is due to each of the woodwind soloists for their exceptionally sensitive phrasing and beautiful tone, and to the strings, who played deftly throughout. The conducting was superb, in general, and it was a challenge at times to choose whether to watch the action on stage, focus on the singing, or watch the conductor and listen to the sparkling and sensitive orchestral playing. It became apparent that in this opera score, Verdi was not satisfied with creating "accompaniment" for the voices. The solo instruments, phrasing and ensemble playing all become part of expressing the characters and moving the action.

The only real disappointment​ for some opera fans might be the rather minimalist sets and lackluster staging. Much of the action takes place inside of what looks like an empty shoebox with metal stairs, and the singers, from chorus to stars, have drab, seemingly ill-fitting costumes. However, the opportunity to hear this rare display of the orchestral score's richness is reason enough to make attending this Rigoletto a priority.