Santa Fe, N.M. — The Santa Fe Opera programmed Verdi’s Rigoletto as the standard-repertoire work of the summer festival. The ever-popular operatic masterpiece featured some magnificent singing but had a bewildering staging. The Rigoletto goings-on were not hard to ignore, forced into the background by the glorious singing and superior acting of most of the leads, but it certainly didn’t help propel the action forward.
The plot is well known so it will only be crudely outlined here. Rigoletto is the court jester for the libertine Duke of Mantua. He has a daughter, Gilda, hidden away to keep her from the intrigues of the court. The Duke catches sight of her on her way home from church and sets about seducing her. Thinking she is Rigoletto’s mistress, the courtiers steal her right under Rigoletto’s nose as a prank and take her to court, and thus the Duke’s lecherous clutches.
In revenge, Rigoletto arranges for the murder of the Duke but Gilda saves him by taking the fatal blow herself. Holding a body in a bag, as delivered by the assassin. Rigoletto thinks he has the remains of the Duke. When he discovers it is Gilda, his grief is overwhelming.
Rigoletto depends on a great singing actor in the title role and Quinn Kelsey brought equal parts of power and pathos, along with a huge voice, to his characterization. He was saddled with a strange costume: tailcoat and top hat—not even a hint of motley. He hobbled around with a cane and a crutch, but there was no sign of the libretto-required physical deformity that made him an object of scorn and forced him to live on society’s edge. Nevertheless, his command of the other details of the character was transcendent.
Kelsey’s portrayal started out with biting sarcasm, with not a hint of humor in it, when taunting Count Monterone about his Duke-dishonored daughter. He moved to false bravura when hunting for his own kidnapped daughter in the court, and ended up howling like a wounded animal over her dead body.
Georgia Jarman sings Gilda with a bigger voice than is usually heard in this coloratura role. This allowed her to almost sound even better in the dramatic moments than in the showpiece aria, “Caro Nome,” which felt slow.
Bruce Sledge, who sang the role of the Duke earlier in the season, took over for the scheduled Bryan Hymel who bowed out. Sledge is a wonderful tenor: fresh, vibrant, powerful and clarion clear. His voice is evenly produced and his high notes ring out in a thrilling manner. Sledge may have sung gloriously, but he was wooden on stage. He planted himself in one position or another, made an occasional gesture with his right hand and faced the audience to sing. There was nothing of the infamous seducer to be found in his portrayal.
Peixin Chen was impressive as the assassin, Sparafucile. His dark voice and creepy stage demeanor gave him a threatening presence. As his prostitute sister, Maddalena, Nicole Piccolomini’s raw mezzo soprano voice and crass behavior made them a quite a pair. But, she was obviously torn by her conflicting emotions concerning the Duke, who is a regular customer. You could sense her losing battle between her attraction to the Duke and doing her duty. She trusted her ability to connive her brother into saving the strutting Duke.
Conductor Jader Bignamini had trouble finding the Goldilocks tempo throughout. Parts of the first act were just slightly faster than the stage could muster while other sections dragged. However, overall he did a fine job, staying under the singers, offering a solid foundation and giving them some flexibility without allowing distortions.
But it is not the Duke but Lee Blakeley’s staging and Adrian Linford’s sets are the real villains here. The set, on a turntable, is a ramshackle affair. Everything is canted as though seen in a fun house mirror. One side is a two-story affair that becomes everything from a palace to a bordello without any visible changes. Worse, it bisects the stage, keeping the action squeezed onto the downstage apron.
The costumes represent a collection of time periods, even some hot pants among the Victoriana. Some simulated sex going on around the seemingly disinterested Duke definitely conveys decadence and his boredom with all things at court. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your opinion of the costumes and your voyeuristic tendencies, Rick Fisher’s lighting keeps everything in the dark.
All of the reservations about set and direction are an irritation and impediment to enjoying this production of Rigoletto. However, the superb singing effectively covers over most of these flaws. When all is said and done, it is the singing that makes an opera like Rigoletto work. Fortunately, the first-class singing in Santa Fe’s Rigoletto allows you overlook the strange surrounding set-ups.
» Other reviews from the 2015 Santa Fe Opera season:
- Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment
- R. Strauss's Salome
- Jennifer Higdon's Cold Mountain
- Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera