Flipping through my Playbill for The Dallas Opera’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto, I was struck by a quote from CE Keith Cerny. “Rigoletto is a well-known favorite,” he writes, “but bringing it to life in a dramatically convincing fashion is always a challenge. In all but the best productions, the work can appear contrived.”
Giuseppe Verdi’s seventeenth opera was the first I ever purchased a complete recording of, and over years of listening to it, I’ve grown rather attached to the piece. But I can how it might not be an easy show to pull off. This story of a jester’s daughter courted by her duke may feature catchy melodies and a plot filled with typically operatic excitement (seduction! murder! high notes!), but in certain productions, the characters can devolve into stereotypes and the heightened drama of the work can become ridiculous. On the other hand, a truly great Rigoletto can catch the listener up in a whirlwind of emotion and never let him down for a moment.
Personally, I’m not sure the Dallas forces delivered the full experience last Friday.
The blame belongs mostly to the creative team. In interviews, even director Harry Silverstein has noted the apparent contrast between Michael Yeargan’s “abstract” sets and Peter J. Hall’s “super realistic” costumes, to use Silverstein’s own terms. In today’s opera world, this mix-and-match school of design is becoming increasingly popular, but Hall’s sumptuous, period-accurate clothing calls for a more specific and realistic setting. Placing all of the action against the backdrop of a stormy landscape does not elucidate the proceedings so much as obfuscate them. It is at times difficult to tell where everything is taking place: nothing, for example, distinguishes the Duke’s palace from the other scenes besides the lighting, the number of people, and a couple of chairs. Yeah. They were really on a budget that year in Mantua.
The singing, unlike the staging, was generally of high quality. As the hunchbacked jester of the title, Italian baritone Paolo Gavanelli provided the evening’s most consistent vocal delights. His is a voice that can storm and thunder—a great, big, burnished voice, the kind of Verdian sound we are frequently told has died out—and then soften to caress a legato phrase. If some of his looks and gestures seemed a touch generalized, that’s a mere quibble. This is a splendid, passionate, old world Rigoletto.
As his daughter, Gilda, soprano Laura Claycomb does not disappoint. She seemed to be holding back a bit in her initial duets with Rigoletto and the Duke, but her famous aria “Caro nome” proved to be one of the vocal highlights of the evening, featuring exquisite soft singing and stratospheric coloratura, and capped with an effortless high E. And her Act II narration was perhaps the best-acted moment of the whole production. Hardly moving, the soprano was able to communicate all of Gilda’s grief, shame, and lost innocence simply through her facial expressions.
Unfortunately, tenor James Valenti was not at the same level as his colleagues. Perhaps he was indisposed? His singing was weak and strained, especially in the upper reaches of his range. I was shocked to note that he simplified two phrases in “Parmi veder le lagrime,” something I had never heard done before. He didn’t convince as the licentious Duke of Mantua either, despite his tall good looks. His stage presence was wooden and, unlike Claycomb and Gavanelli, he seemed to have little idea of how to move onstage.
Bass Raymond Aceto and mezzo-soprano Kirstin Chavez made a big impression as the villainous siblings Sparafucile and Maddalena. Indeed, Chavez’s Maddalena was so well-sung that I found myself longing to hear her Carmen (hint, hint, TDO). Bradley Garvin was regal and imposing in the pivotal role of Count Monterone. Even the courtiers were strong, headed by Stephen Hartley, Quincy Roberts, and Aaron Blake, and backed by members of the Dallas Opera chorus.
Conductor Pietro Rizzo elicited solid playing from the orchestra, and set fleet tempi for numbers such as “Si, vendetta,” a piece that far too many maestros are apt to slog through.
And yet in spite of the musical excellence, the production often failed to pack a needed punch. A Rigoletto of the first order should provoke tears. I was rarely moved, and was somewhat disturbed by how many people around me were laughing. The inordinate amount of laughter elicited from the audience indicates to me that they were not emotionally involved in the proceedings.
Things did improve somewhat in the third act. The famous quartet was the highlight one always wants it to be, with wonderful ensemble work from Gavanelli, Claycomb, Valenti, and Chavez; the storm sequence was thrilling; and the final duet touching. If it had not been for this act, I would have left the theater highly disappointed.
Even so, I hesitate in giving this production of Rigoletto a full recommendation. It features some fine singing and acting, but is severely hampered by a substandard tenor and absurd sets. Those who choose to attend should prepare themselves for an evening with some sparkling moments, but lacking in dramatic unity.