in a shadowy light
by Philip Campbell
The San Francisco Opera opened season 90 last Friday with a time-tested and sturdy production of Verdi's molto Italiano masterwork Rigoletto . Theatrically tight, chock-full of famous tunes, and remarkably easy to follow, this was the right choice for an opening-night crowd easily distracted by all of the showy action offstage.
Of course, the performance didn't start on time and audience members were egregiously late returning to their seats after intermission, but none of the party atmosphere stopped the dramatic flow of a performance anchored by a singer of outstanding authority in the title role. Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic is internationally recognized as a specialist in Verdi for good reason, and he has rapidly become the go-to guy for portrayal of the tortured and physically deformed court jester. His interpretation is marked by histrionic restraint, and best of all, he really sings the role.
Lucic may be a little young by comparison to other singers who have sobbed and gasped their way through the exhausting assignment, and his voice possesses little of the hearty Italianate sound usually associated with Verdi. What makes Lucic's enactment so compelling is his beautifully colored tone and intense focus. He may have ideas of his own about tempo and attack, but he was partnered with a game conductor in Nicola Luisotti, willing to accommodate him throughout with sympathetic orchestral support.
Luisotti alerted us early to his own urgent and burnished approach to an opera that is often obscured by conflicting performing styles. The dark and ominous Prelude to Act I rumbled and crashed from the pit on opening night, forcing the giddy crowd to straighten up and face the music. What followed was a richly detailed and sonorous performance that managed to avoid any sense of casual oom-pah-pah accompaniment.
The stark and imposing set designs by Michael Yeargan, influenced by paintings of Giorgio de Chirico and luridly colored by the dramatic lighting of Chris Maravich, may remind me a bit of the Shakespeare scenes in the movie production of Kiss Me, Kate, but they provide a strong and fluid backdrop for director Harry Silverstein's generally uncluttered and potently dramatic production.
In keeping with the focus on Verdi's great score and letting the composition speak for itself, the other singers assembled for the first-night cast also contributed fine-sounding characterizations. As Rigoletto's remarkably dim-witted daughter Gilda (well, okay, the poor dear has always been locked away in her bedroom whenever she is not in church), Polish coloratura soprano Aleksandra Kurzak made her SFO debut with a gratifying depth and sturdy middle voice that could still encompass the high notes with ease. She has a genuine and unobtrusive trill that is managed to subtle and satisfying effect.
No one will ever make Gilda's dying duet with her devastated father completely convincing (sorry, if you didn't know already), but Kurzak's simple acting approach proved a good match for Lucic's, and she received enthusiastic and justified audience approval for her lovely "Caro, nome" earlier in the performance.
As the vile seducer and cruelly selfish Duke of Mantua, tenor Francesco Demuro, a native of Sardinia making his own SFO debut, managed to more or less convince with a bland characterization marked by careful and pleasant singing and a certain physical appeal. It was not enough to make us love and loathe the rogue as Verdi intended, but no impediment to a trio of principal singers clearly intent on remaining musical.
Italian bass Andrea Silvestri as the creepy assassin Sparafucile made a hearty meal of his scenes with Rigoletto, and also in his exchanges with his slatternly sister Maddalena (a substantial and welcome return to the SFO by American mezzo Kendall Gladen). Silvestri has a surprising voice that sounds like it is emanating from an oaken cask. How apt for the mysterious killer who wants to maintain his reputation for thoroughness.
Another artist making his SFO debut was Canadian bass Robert Pomakov, as Count Monterone. Delivering the curse of a horribly wronged father that ultimately causes Rigoletto's tragic undoing, Pomakov was artistically in keeping with the uniformity of the production, with most of his acting happening in his voice, but he deserved more visual emphasis from the director. It was hard to find where that powerful voice was coming from amidst the shadows.
There is an alternate cast for the opening production of the new season, and it should be enlightening to see what Marco Vratogna does with the title role (we liked his Iago in Otello here in 2009). Coloratura soprano Albina Shagimuratova, who made an impressive Company debut this past summer as the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, will sing Gilda.
If opening night was largely dependent on the focus of Zeljko Lucic's performance in his signature role, much musical satisfaction was also provided by conductor Luisotti and his ability to put a personal interpretive stamp on an old war-horse. Framing the singers, coaxing disciplined and passionate orchestral playing, and forcing a distracted gala crowd to pay attention, the SFO Music Director earned his bravos.