Reviewed by Judy Richter
The San Francisco Opera's Oct. 3 performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Rigolettowas unusual in two respects. The first is that before the curtain went up, SFO president George Hume announced that the company had just received the single largest donation in its history and perhaps in the history of any opera company in the nation. Jeannik Méquet Littlefield has committed $35 million, part of which will pay for ongoing operations, the rest of which will go into the endowment fund. Sitting in Box K, Littlefield was honored with a standing ovation by the audience and a bouquet of yellow roses from General Director David Gockley. The wife of the late industrialist, Edmund Wattis Littlefield, she also sponsored this production of "Rigoletto" and has made other multi-million-dollar gifts to the company.
The other unusual aspect that night was unheralded but significant. Camera crews throughout the War Memorial Opera House were rehearsing for the Oct. 6 free outdoor simulcasts of "Rigoletto" at the nearby Civic Center Plaza and at Stanford University's Frost Amphitheater some 40 miles away. The company's production of Madama Butterfly was simulcast at Civic Center Plaza earlier this year, part of Gockley's effort to introduce opera to a wider audience.
As for the performance itself, it is most memorable for baritone Paolo Gavanelli as Rigoletto. As directed by Harry Silverstein, Gavanelli personifies the misshapen court jester with a rolling, almost spider-like walk. Vocally, he projects Rigoletto's deep emotions as he witnesses the disgrace and loss of the one thing he loves, his daughter, Gilda. His control over dynamics is especially impressive. Soprano Mary Dunleavy as Gilda is well-matched with Gavanelli. Although she bats her eyes a bit too coquettishly at times, she moves well and easily negotiates the role's highest notes with clarity.
The opera's villain, the Duke of Mantua, is sung by tenor Giuseppe Gipali. Despite his ability to hit the high notes with precision, he doesn't project well, and his movements lack fluidity. Other major roles are competently filled without any great distinction: baritone Greer Grimsley as Monterone, whose curse haunts Rigoletto; bass Kristinn Sigmundsson as Sparafucile, the assassin; and mezzo-soprano Katherine Rohrer as Maddalena, Sparafucile's sister.
The singers and Ian Robertson's otherwise excellent SFO Chorus are hampered by Stephen Lord's conducting. He seems to focus more on the orchestra than the singers, sometimes losing unity between pit and stage and sometimes setting tempos that are too fast for both singers and instrumentalists.
This SFO-created production features a simple but versatile set by Michael Yeargan, period costumes by Constance Hoffman and dramatic lighting by Mark McCullough. Simulcast audiences no doubt will enjoy it because of those visuals but mostly because of the performances, especially Gavanelli's.
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