San Francisco Opera, Sept. 30, 2006:
Paolo Gavanelli sang a ravishingly beautiful performance in the title role of San Francisco Opera's Rigoletto Saturday night. He sang with majestic projection, flawless legato, innate lyricism, producing elongated, thrilling notes, all wrapped in seductive sheen.
But suddenly, I realized that my admiration and delight were shared by Gavanelli himself. He was playing with the music, reaching for even fuller notes, getting more velvet into each consonant, broadening an already mile-wide sound. It was spectacular, and a bit frustrating. Rigoletto, the tortured court jester, was seldom authentically present; Rigoletto, the great singer, was doing his thing, the voice hypnotizing the listener, the work itself remaining at a distance.
By his own count, this was Gavanelli's 163rd Rigoletto. Tonight, as at his last portrayal of the role here,nine years ago, he offered a "different," exciting realization of the great standard that has been around for 155 years, and first given in San Francisco as early as in 1860. Consider those figures, especially those 163 live performances. It sounds almost indecent to demand great vocal beauty *and* really "getting into the role" night after night. And yet, that is the irrational rationale of operatchniks the world over.
Otherwise, the components were all there, but the overall performance failed to catch fire; the whole did not exceed the sum of its parts. Stephen Lord made an impressive conducting debut, supporting the singers to a fault, and yet never at the expense of the score. The orchestral sound had less brilliance than Gavanelli's performance, but significantly more sincerity. The Opera Chorus sounded exceptional in Act 1, but not in Act 3, with a solid, resounding unison early, falling apart slightly later. (Could this have been the 163rd Rigoletto for some of the chorus members as well?)
Mary Dunleavy is a visually perfect Gilda: young, beautiful, vulnerable. Except for one blown note, her vocal performance was consistently excellent, although lacking in emotional appeal and impact.
Giuseppe Gipali's San Francisco debut as the Duke of Mantua revealed a small, pretty voice (gaining in volume only at the end of the opera, perhaps helped by his position on stage left), and a judicious avoidance of anything thespian. "Stand and deliver" is his motto, and he does, up to a point.
The most consistently whole performance, musically and dramatically: Kristinn Sigmundsson, singing a "real," believable Sparafucile, not showing off, although it would have been easy for him.
Participation of many young artists from the Opera Center in smaller roles was both welcome and successful. Adler Fellows shined: Matthew O'Neill as Borsa, Kimwana Doner as Countess Ceprano, Jeremy Galyon as Count Ceprano, Eugene Brancoveanu as Marullo, Kendall Gladen as Giovanna. A former colleague of theirs, Katherine Rohrer, had a remarkable turn as Maddalena, helping to spark a finale that had a lot more oomph than the rest of the evening.
"Rigoletto" seems to be booby-trapped for stage designers: it had provided a low point for the brilliant career of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, and now the current San Francisco revival of the otherwise masterful Michael Yeargan's Rigoletto is another misfire. Two converging rows of building shells form the "De Chirico style" unit set for every scene, with a sharply raked, narrowing pathway going upstage, bathed in mixed, clashing, strange light. The combination of violet and green, for example, means
something, but I have no idea what it may be; it looks good anyway. On the other hand, turning the stage dark when "something happens" belongs to a high school production of The Drunkard.
Constance Hoffman's costumes are spectacular, but it's too bad this edition cuts way back on what was once the ladies' empire cut, simultaneously exposing and constraining what may be considered tasteful frontal nudity, especially in the context of the Duke's excesses.