Soprano provides bright moments in San Francisco Opera’s flat “Rigoletto” opener

September 08, 2012
By Lisa Hirsch

Željko Lučić and Aleksandra Kurzak in San Francisco Opera's "Rigoletto." Photo: Cory Weaver

San Francisco Opera’s opening night is at least as much a high-profile social event as a musical event, as evidenced by the speeches before the performance, the champagne after, and fifty society photos posted on the San Francisco Chronicle website the next day. The opera inevitably starts late, with patrons still hunting for their seats when the lights go down and chatting after the music starts.

Under the circumstances, with the music taking a back seat to the socializing, you have to feel for the singers at the same time that you expect them to do their professional best. Friday night’s opening Rigoletto fell surprisingly flat, despite alert and idiomatic conducting from music director Nicola Luisotti, great work from the chorus, and two fine vocal performances from the principals.

The physical production, in its fourth appearance since 1997, remains strong and full of character. With stylized, off-kilter sets influenced by the artwork of Giorgio de Chirico, medieval-punk costumes by Constance Hoffman, and sickly, shadow-haunted lighting by Chris Maravich, the production is a nightmare version of the sixteenth century.

Unfortunately, Harry Silverstein’s lifeless direction didn’t take advantage of the setting and did little to help the singers or to reflect the liveliness of Verdi’s music. The courtier scenes were particularly weak, with the chorus moved around in blocks when not standing still. In Act I, scene I, there was little physical interaction among Borsa, Marullo, and Count Ceprano. Those who recall Mark Lamos’s original staging will remember Paolo Gavanelli limping among the courtiers in Act II, wordlessly interrogating and intimidating them with his “La rà, la rà, la rà.” This year, Rigoletto sings largely to the audience.

And that’s a problem with the jester throughout. There’s little to fault with Željko Lučić’s vocalism. His baritone could have more Italianate edge and ping, but it’s warm, sizable, and beautifully produced at all dynamic levels with a flawless legato. But even when he’s looking at and addressing another character, he is singing to the audience more than to that other person on stage. As a vocal recital, it would work wonderfully, but Rigoletto’s pain and alienation, his fury at the courtiers, and the depth of his love for Gilda just didn’t come through. This would be a disappointment in any performance, but Lučić has a reputation as one of the great Rigolettos of our time. Perhaps his performance will become more dramatic later in the run.

Tenor Francesco Meli was originally to make his San Francisco Opera debut in last year’s Lucrezia Borgia, in which substitute Michael Fabiano scored a triumph. Demuro was largely unsatisfactory as the Duke of Mantua, bringing some insouciance but little charisma to his portrayal and singing poorly. His voice is light for such a large house, even in this lightest of Verdi tenor roles, and is constricted in its upper register with a tendency to spread under pressure.

Making her local debut and providing the evening’s greatest vocal pleasure was soprano Aleksandra Kurzak. She has everything a great Gilda needs: a warm and lovely soprano, if darker than usual for the role, easy trills and runs, range, and charm. She sang Caro nome splendidly and went bravely to her death at the close of the opera. If her overall performance fell short of greatness, blame lack of chemistry with both Demuro and Lučić and the general failure of the performance as a whole to catch fire.

In the smaller roles, Andrea Silvestrelli’s mighty bass and hulking presence made him a memorably sinister Sparafucile; after the bland opening, his brief scene with Rigoletto certainly raised the dramatic tension on stage. Renée Rapier made a complete character of Gilda’s duenna Giovanna in her brief stage time. Kendall Gladen sang Maddalena with such a soft-grained mezzo that she made almost no impact and was often inaudible. Robert Pomakov’s Montone was wobbly and underpowered. Daniel Montenegro, Laura Krumm, Joo Won Kang, and Jere Torkelsen ably filled out the other small parts.

The San Francisco Opera chorus had a great night, singing with fabulous consistency and forceful tone. In the pit, Nicola Luisotti conducted well and brought out all the dark colors of the score. At the same time, he disappointed a bit, if only because he fell short of the savage intensity and brilliance he brought to 2005’s La Forza del Destino. Act III, with its storm and inherent horror and drama, stood above the first two acts. English horn player Janet Popesco Archibald stood out among the wind players, her haunting sound adding greatly to the pathos of the music.

Rigoletto runs through September 30 with Marco Vratogna, Albina Shagimuratova and Arturo Chacon-Cruz alternating with the opening night cast in the principal roles.

Lisa Hirsch is a technical writer. She studied music at Brandeis and Stony Brook

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