I was finally able to get to the Winspear Opera House to see the Dallas Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto on Thursday. I was prevented from reviewing opening night, as TheaterJones prefers, by the inconvenience of a broken leg, and had given some thought to giving it a pass. I am so glad that I didn’t. This is a Rigoletto that will remain in my memory as exceptional in every way.
Rigoletto is running in tandem with Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, and what a fascinating pairing it turned out to be. Both operas have demanding roles at their core; roles that require a singer’s full attention throughout their career in order to succeed. If you don’t have a superlative Boris or Rigoletto, then you don’t have a cast for either show. Which, by the way, is not intended to denigrate any of the other roles. They are all equally challenging and Dallas Opera was successful in bringing world-class talent to every character in both productions. But the Boris of Mikhail Kazakov, stately and haunted, and the misshapen dwarfish jester Paolo Gavanelli creates as Rigoletto are extraordinary. It is doubtful that you will experience their equal no matter how many subsequent productions you may attend.
This production of Rigoletto is a combination of the abstract and the realistic. The action is set against a dark, brooding, monochromatic full-stage sized painting of a thunder storm pounding a desolate rocky shoreline. The painting extends backwards, like a telescope opening, into ever smaller boxes as the action expands and contracts.
Set against this timeless and expressionist image, the late Peter Hall’s magnificent period costumes create a surreal effect. It is as if the actors have been plucked, a la Twilight Zone, from their own time and place to play out the drama in a nightmarish alternate universe. Director Harry Silverstein adds to this feeling of displacement by frequently planting his singers in one position while the action swirls around them.
This effect was the most dramatic in the heartbreaking scene in which Rigoletto tries to glean some information from the chorus about the whereabouts of his abducted daughter. The chorus remains immobile, like avatars that can only be activated when occupied, while Rigoletto winds his way through and around them as if they were so much furniture.
Texas-born coloratura soprano Laura Claycomb is stunning in her Dallas Opera debut as Gilda. Her big aria, Caro Nome, was impeccably sung and dramatically spot-on. Her portrayal is that of an innocent and sheltered girl grappling with the newly awakened warm blooded passions of a worldlier woman. Her choice to give her life to save her feckless lover’s is agonizing rather than girlishly romantic, as you so often see.
Tenor James Valenti, who won Dallas Opera’s 2009 “Maria Callas Debut Artist of the Year Award,” made a virile and studly Duke. It was a little gratuitous to have him bare-chested under his open robe for the entire second act, especially when the courtiers entered, but since most tenors look like they consume six packs rather than have one on the torso─why not? He possesses a fine and secure tenor voice that is not the full-out Italian sound that you usually get in this role. He is certainly effective in Verdi, but he would be equally at home in German or French opera, areas in which the pure Italian tenors flounder.
Raymond Aceto, as the assassin Sparafucile, combined his strikingly resonant bass voice with a menacing physical presence to create a truly frightening characterization. His outside calm demeanor betrayed a tightly coiled spring ready to strike out viciously and without warning. Mezzo-soprano Kirstin Chavez, in her Dallas Opera debut as his equally devious sister Maddalena, played the role as a matter-of-fact, get-down-to-business flat-out whore without any time wasted with the usual coy flirting that you sometimes get in this role.
The Dallas Opera Chorus, under chorus master Alexander Rom, once again impressed. In Boris, the greatly enhanced chorus sings as much as any of the major roles. Considering that they had to learn Mussorgsky’s complex score in Russian, it is a wonder that they found time to give the choral work in Rigoletto such a detailed preparation. In both operas, the choral work shines.
Conductor Pietro Rizzo works way too hard in the pit for Rigoletto. When the music starts to run off the rails, it is wiser to make smaller motions rather than ever bigger ones. Still, he pulled off an exciting performance. He was at his best in the big moments and was consistently on top of the words. He gave the singers free rein in the big arias but was able to prevent almost all of the excesses that singers will take when the leash is loosened. The use of real instruments in the off stage band is the mark of a world class company and kudos to the Dallas Opera for not playing that music in the pit.
There is only one remaining chance to see Rigoletto but there are still opportunities to see Boris Godunov. Don't let them pass you by.