Puzzling Lack of Evil in New Rigoletto

United StatesUnited States Verdi, Rigoletto: Seattle Opera, soloists, Riccardo Frizza (conductor), McCaw Hall, Seattle, 22.1.2014 (BJ)

Duke of Mantua: Francesco Demuro (tenor)
Borsa: Doug Jones (tenor)
Countess Ceprano: Carissa Castaldo (soprano)
Rigoletto: Marco Vratogna (baritone)
Count Ceprano: Glenn Guhr (baritone)
Marullo: Barry Johnson (baritone)
Monterone: Donovan Singletary (bass-baritone)
Sparafucile: Andrea Silvestrelli (bass)
Gilda: Nadine Sierra (soprano)
Giovanna: Emily Clubb (soprano)
Maid: Carissa Castaldo (soprano)
Official: Michael Dunlap (baritone)
Maddalena: Sarah Larsen (mezzo-soprano)

Linda Brovsky (director)
Robert Dahlstrom (sets)
Marie Anne Chiment (costumes)
Thomas C. Hase (lighting)
Nicola Bowie (choreographer)
Joyce Degenfelder (hair and makeup)
John Keene (chorus master)
Philip A. Kelsey, David McDade, Jay Rozendaal (musical preparation)


First of all, where is this story supposed to have taken place?

There was a great deal to enjoy in Seattle Opera’s revival of the Linda Brovsky production of Rigoletto that was first staged here in 2004. On the musical side, Francesco Demuro deployed a strong and authentically Italianate tenor voice as the Duke, Marco Vratogna was equally authoritative, both vocally and dramatically, in the title role, and Nadine Sierra sang a vivid Gilda (if in a voice a tad weightier than is usual for the role). Andrea Silvestrelli’s Sparafucile was suitably dark-toned and threatening, and Sarah Larsen’s Maddalena blended seductively with the voices of her companions in the famous last-act quartet. There were no weaknesses in the supporting roles, and the orchestral and choral work under Riccardo Frizza’s idiomatic leadership was often spectacularly good.

 Visually, too, we were treated to sets by Robert Dahlstrom that were at once handsome and practical. Marie Anne Chiment’s costumes were exceptionally attractive (though the silly hat she foisted on Gilda in the last act was regrettable). And Linda Brovsky is a gifted director, whose productions of I Puritani and Don Quichotte have won golden opinions, from me among others, in recent seasons.

 Why is there a “but” lurking behind all this praise? Well, the problem about me is that I want things to make sense, even in opera. So when the program tells me that the action takes place in Mantua, Italy, in 1936, and that the opening scene represents a party in the Duke of Mantua’s palace, my disbelieving hackles start to rise. I don’t pretend to be an expert in Italian politics—but a duke in 1936 Mantua? Unlikely, to be sure. And if I am wrong, and such a person could have existed, would he be likely to have had a court fool or jester on his staff? (Perhaps there was a touch of realism in the fact that this duke was clearly saving on manpower costs, since the Rigoletto in this production seemed to combine his jester role with functioning as a waiter and a sort of peripatetic bartender.)

 All that, however, is merely an unlikelihood in the area of facts, and as such ignorable. Much more important, in the context of this supremely tragedy-, revenge-, curse-ridden opera, was the complete absence of any sense of threat, any evocation of tyranny, in the atmosphere of the first scene Brovsky gave us. Sumptuously set, and adorned with a bevy of extremely attractive and beautifully gowned women, including a notably tall and elegant Countess Ceprano in the person of Carissa Castaldo, this—at least until the moment of Monterone’s incursion—just looked like a very pleasant party, which I should have enjoyed attending. And the Duke himself, modest in dress and demeanor, was evidently a perfectly amiable young chap, offering no hint of the evil that surely must suffuse his character.

 In Act 2, the courtiers’ efforts at bamboozling Rigoletto into believing that his house is just across a narrow street from the Ceprano where the eponymous Count and Countess live, were desultory in the extreme: most productions try far more in the way of turning the poor blindfolded man round and round to confuse him. But I can forgive the director if she felt that there was no way to make the episode of the abduction—always a stumbling-block in the plot—believable, and simply decided to ignore the problem.

 Act 3 was more like the real thing. Here the interaction between Rigoletto and Gilda on one side of the wall and Sparafucile and Maddalena on the other was neatly managed. The characterization of Sparafucile, too, both here and on his first appearance in Act 1, was original and cogent. He made a somewhat rumpled figure, rather than the obviously sinister murderer we usually see. The effect of this was to suggest that ordinary people can be just as evil as clearly dyed-in-the-wool villains. I am prepared to leave open the hypothesis that this is what Brovsky was aiming at also with her seemingly inoffensive Duke; but I can only say that I was convinced in the case of Sparafucile but not in that of the Duke.

 The tragic denouement was brought off with full power and pathos—unlike the abduction scene, it can hardly fail. So we went home appropriately horrified, if in my case less than completely satisfied by the preceding scenes in the opera.

Bernard Jacobson