Thursday, March 31, 2011
Opera review part deux: Rigoletto at Winspear Opera House in Dallas
The melody and this opera will forever haunt you.
There is a particular thrill when one hears a song that is known the world over but most people don't know where it comes from. The song "La donna è mobile" appears in Act 3 of Rigoletto (presented by Dallas Opera at Winspear Opera House through April 10). This upbeat and rather comical tune has made countless appearances on other television shows, such as South Park, M*A*S*H, films like My Favorite Martian, it is referenced in plays, and even video games. You can go to Eatzi's and odds are you'll hear it over the loud speaker while shopping. The instant recognition is a thrill because as one sits during the opera Rigoletto you get an "a-ha!" moment. "So that's where that tune comes from!" But of course, the bigger thrill is to discover that this sprightly melody with its wickedly funny lyrics is actually quite ominous and terrifying. Out of context it's fun; in context it is malevolent. The equivalent would be Hannibal Lecter singing "Tea for Two" as he prepares his next victim.
When it premiered 150 years ago, Rigoletto caused a sensation. It almost never premiered for the subject matter was too controversial. To this day it retains an edge that is horrific. The story follows the tragic events of a hunchback jester who has a curse placed on him due to his overly sharp wit that offends the Count Monterone. For the rest of the opera, Rigoletto tries to protect himself of this curse, but he fails. It all leads to deadly and unexpected consequences.
This opera is full of plot details that keep the viewer riveted. It also is a musical masterpiece. As complicated as the plot is, it helps that the Dallas Opera chose scenic designer Michael Yeager's set. It is a technological marvel. The audience is confronted with a single wall that telescopes back and forth to create rooms within rooms. Just when you think you've seen all the set can do the side-panels telescope side to side. It is almost like being trapped within a Rubik's cube.
As the plot machinations develop they are matched by this ever increasingly complex set. The set feels expansive yet moments later it becomes claustrophobic. There is no doubt that the characters are trapped within the set and as their worlds collapse, the walls literally close down on them. BRAVO!
The late Peter Hall created costumes that suit each character perfectly. There is a mix of beauty and macabre to his costumes. The action takes place in 1500, and Mr. Hall perfectly captures the feel of the era, yet his subtle choices in colors and fabrics speak volumes. Rigoletto is dressed as a court jester and while exceedingly colorful at first his costume becomes darker and more disjointed in appearance as the action progresses. Even though the period is Early Renaissance, & most of the performers are quite covered up there is sensuality to these costumes that underscores the raw & base sexual perversions of the characters on stage.
The lighting design by Steven Strawbridge highlights the action as needed but serves as a commentary of the proceedings. As the story progresses and the characters become trapped in their destiny the lights become harsher. It's almost as if the light is further punishing these characters. At one point you know a murder has been committed off stage because a blood red light briefly infuses the stage. The lights not only compliment the action but help further the action along.
This entire technical prowess wouldn't amount to much if the cast were to falter. Once again, the Dallas Opera has assembled an A-list of performers that astound.
James Valenti, one of the young leading tenors on the world stage takes the role of The Duke. He is a soulless playboy. He is the ultimate player and we loathe him for he uses women and discards them like trash. Though we don't like him at all, we must be able to see why women will fall for him, or even commit suicide because of him. Mr. Valenti convinces. His tenor is clear and sultry, and he sings with an ease that shows his mastery of the vocal requirements for the role. Because of his easy control of the vocal requirements he is also able to deliver a nuanced performance.
Gilda, Rigoletto's daughter, is played by Laura Claycomb. This marks Ms. Claycomb's Dallas Opera's debut. She is known around the world for her coloratura. I can see why. The woman seems to have an infinite vocal range and a control unlike anyone I've ever seen live. Her trills, her musical runs, all seemed most natural and effortless. It would require a major suspension of disbelief for most audiences to accept her falling in love with The Duke after she was kidnapped and presumably raped by him, yet she makes us believe she has fallen in love with him even though she knows he mistreats all women. She is a pathetic character. This said, we still must feel sorry for her while simultaneously feeling disgust by her declaration of love for the Duke. She is truly a victimized woman. Yet somehow she makes us connect with her.
The titular role of Rigoletto is played by none other than Paolo Gavanelli who has played this role so many times it has almost become synonymous with him. The advantage of having played this role countless times is his deep understanding of this character. We love him, we hate him, we feel sorry for him and we dislike him.
Rigoletto is a very complex character and Gavanelli understands him thoroughly. I know he sang the entire time but it never felt like he did. Every note produced was not just the demand of the score but it was a further development of his character. There was no separating the man from the music from the character. He doesn't just play Rigoletto; he IS Rigoletto.
Raymond Aceto plays the killer for hire Sparafucile. Though it isn't as prominent a role, the impact he has on stage cannot be measured. He is truly terrifying especially in the scenes he shares with his sister. Kirstin Chavez as Maddalena, Sparafucile's sister, gives a riveting performance that resonates even though she is only in the third act. Within the space of a few minutes she causes revulsion in the audience with the sub-textual implication that she might be having an incestuous affair with her brother, yet we have to believe she too falls for The Duke, and somehow as an audience member we must also connect with her. The depravity in the household is horrifying, and the two of them raise the level of anxiety in the audience so that I found myself squirming in my seat.
The rest of the supporting cast was equally as good. There was not a single weak link here.
Pietro Rizzo, who conducted the opera, did so with much grace and clarity. The Winspear Opera House seems to trip the conductors a bit because the acoustics are almost too good. Right off the top he overpowered the singers for a short period of time. Moments later he brought the orchestra volume down but unfortunately it was during a musical sequence with dancing where the volume could have been louder. It took him about 10 minutes before he found the right level of volume between the orchestra and the singers. Once he found it, the balance was excellent. He made the score zing, and he supported the vocalists with lush sounds, and wonderful and crisp balances between all the instruments.
I frequently bash opera directors for keeping the action static on stage. We are watching a drama unfold before us and not a concert performance. Action is needed. But there are moments where intense stillness will ratchet up the tension and the trick is knowing when and where to use it, and especially for how long. Harry Silverstein masters the use of stillness and movement. At one point in Act 2 the entire stage nearly freezes. Rigoletto has entered the room in search for his abducted daughter. The entire stage is populated by the cast and the chorus almost equidistant from each other. Everyone except for Rigoletto is unmoving and statue-like. The effect is that he has entered a labyrinth of human beings. It is bone chilling. Mr. Silverstein was able to elicit sublime performances from each of his singers and chorus.
Rigoletto was performed 10 years ago by the Dallas Opera, and it may not be back for quite some time. Do not let the adult subject matter and the seedy nature of the plot keep you away. Behind all the ugliness behind these characters there is a riveting score that is spectacularly beautiful. The gorgeous visuals help highlight the tragic nature of this story of an intense and over protective love of a father for his daughter. This is a must see.
If you are a die-hard opera aficionado you will not be disappointment for it is an impeccable performance. If you are new to the art form or have never been, this is a chance to see why Rigoletto is considered by many as one of the greatest operas ever created. And yes, you will go home humming "La donna è mobile." The melody and this opera will forever haunt you.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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