Singing soars in San Diego Opera's 'Rigoletto' despite wobbly direction

San Diego Opera on Saturday opened its sixth production of Giuseppe Verdi’s masterwork “Rigoletto,” which is just as well known for its showpiece arias and famed quartet as its old-fashioned, melodramatic story.

The good news: Verdi’s score is virtuosically sung by its principal singers on a lavish new two-story set.

The bad news: directorial choices that highlight the 168-year-old opera’s flaws.

Baritone Stephen Powell owns the stage as the hunchback title character, Rigoletto — a cruel and self-loathing jester in the 16th-century court of the lecherous Duke of Mantua.

This is Powell’s 11th production with San Diego Opera and by far his best. He sings with power and grace, as well as roiling fury. His standout is Rigoletto’s famous “La ra” aria, where he’s forced to make merry among scheming courtiers who have kidnapped his virgin daughter, Gilda, and delivered her to the Duke’s bed.

Soprano Alisa Jordheim makes an astonishing role and company debut as Gilda. Despite her petite size, she has a huge crystalline voice that she effortlessly pirouettes through perfect coloratura acrobatics and piercing high notes.

Scott Quinn makes his company debut as the Duke, a role laden with three of the most famous arias in the tenor repertoire. In the first act, he seemed to be inexplicably holding back and was virtually drowned out in the ensembles. A curtain speech by management at intermission revealed Scott was struggling with a cold but decided to carry on.

The respiratory distress impacted Scott’s volume, breath control and note suspension, but he has an ear-pleasing and sweet golden vocal tone and an easy top voice. And like Jordheim and Powell, he’s a refreshingly natural actor.

One of the production’s highlights is the third-act quartet “Bella figlia dell'amore” featuring those three singers and contralto Alissa Anderson as tavern maid Maddalena. Their voices are all cleanly distinguishable in the multilayered ensemble.

In his company debut Saturday, conductor Steven White delivered a spirited performance from the San Diego Symphony and notably pulled back when necessary to accommodate Scott’s and other singers’ needs. Chorus master Bruce Stasyna matched the orchestra’s robustness with rich choral singing in the first and second acts.

The company’s sumptuous new “Rigoletto” production is set in period, with the highlight a luxurious ducal palace court with a large sculpture resembling Giambologna’s famed Rape of the Sabine Women sculpture in Florence.

Playing off that, stage director Michael Cavanagh highlights the debauchery and misogyny of the court by littering the set with the dropped handkerchiefs of the women, including Gilda, who are regularly dragged in, hooded and bound, to be raped. Cavanagh’s staging also features the senseless stabbing deaths of several women, including a brutal honor killing by a courtier.

But the production falls on its own sword in the overly pantomimed acting of the courtiers and scampering servants, particularly in the disorganized opening scene. The sometimes cartoonishly big gestures and grimaces feel awkwardly dated in 2019.

Despite its vocal riches, “Rigoletto” has always been hampered by its musty source material, an 1832 Victor Hugo play. That can’t be changed. But a more naturalistic approach in the stage acting could make the look of this show as invigorating and honest as it sounds.

“Rigoletto”

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday; 7 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. Feb. 10

Where: San Diego Opera at the San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown

Tickets: $49 and up

Phone: (619) 533-7000

Online: sdopera.org

pam.kragen@sduniontribune.com. Twitter: @pamkragen

Copyright © 2019, © 2019, The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. All rights reserved.
42°