By Giuseppe Verdi
Presented by San Francisco Opera
At the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA
Conducted by David Robertson
Directed by Mark Lamos

Reviewed by Judy Richter

The San Francisco Opera is presenting its first new production of Verdi's Rigoletto in 24 years. After staging the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production in 1973, 1981, 1984 and 1990, the company this year has turned to Michael Yeargan to design the sets and Constance Hoffman to design the costumes, while Mark Lamos directs.

Both Yeargan and Hoffman take their inspiration from Italian painter Giorgio De Chirico (1888-1978), described as the originator of the Metaphysical group of painters. "Di Chirico's juxtaposition of the ordinary and the fantastical suited Yeargan's concept of the piece, so he used his odd perspective as a basis for his set design," the production's press notes say.

Hence, the stage has a steep rake, and walls are set slightly askew. Hoffman's costumes are rooted in the opera's 16th century setting in Mantua, but Rigoletto's jester's costume uses garish colors for the fool's motley. These costumes work well except for the dresses worn by women of the chorus in Act 1. The push-up style unnecessarily appears to bare their breasts. To complete the stage picture, Pat Collins' lighting design tends to be too dark, but the lightning flashes for the Act 3 storm scene are impressive.

The singing ranges from satisfactory to excellent. In the latter category are American soprano Ruth Ann Swenson as Gilda and Italian baritone Paolo Gavanelli as Rigoletto. Swenson has a crystalline voice plus the musical artistry and technique to hold her audience spellbound, as she does in Caro nome, despite the faintest trace of breathiness on high notes on Sept. 16. Later arias and ensembles were fine, though, for Swenson is an excellent ensemble singer who listens carefully to her colleagues to blend with them. Gavanelli sings with power and authority, yet his duets with Swenson's Gilda are filled with fatherly tenderness and pathos for an all-around thrilling performance.

After Swenson and Gavanelli the quality slips somewhat, but not enough to ruin the effect. American tenor Martin Thompson as the Duke of Mantua is a last-minute replacement for Carlo Scibelli, who in turn was to fill in for the originally scheduled Richard Leech, who withdrew because of a death in his family. Leech will sing Oct. 1, and Tito Beltrán will sing Oct. 5 and 7, as previously scheduled. Although Thompson has a good range and a clear tone, breaks between his head and chest voices are obvious. His acting as the caddish Duke is good.

American bass Scott Wilde lacks authority and works too hard as Monterone, pronouncer of la maledizione. Ukranian bass Anatoli Kotcherga as the assassin Sparafucile sings well, but the lighting keeps him too much in shadow during his first encounter with Rigoletto. He also needs to be more sinister. Other roles are ably sung without making a strong impression.

The production's greatest weakness is in the orchestra pit, where conductor David Robertson often sets tempos too fast to allow the singing to take on sufficient emotional color. He seems intent on going right ahead with little regard for the singers' artistry. Consequently, singers and orchestra are sometimes at odds. He also allows the orchestra to overpower the Act 3 trio of Gilda, Sparafucile and Maddalena, sung by Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba.

The SFO Chorus and Orchestra both acquit themselves well despite the conducting. Lamos keeps the action flowing smoothly and logically.

For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.

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Monday, 08-Dec-2003 21:44:36 PST