THE BLOG
12/16/2010 02:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rigoletto With a Touch of the Surreal

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The current season's marriage of inconvenience between the budget grinch and a cash-strapped LA Opera proffers some things old, some new, others borrowed or blue. If the current Rigoletto is both old and borrowed, it is at least still effective. First mounted in 1997 in San Francisco, the production lent to Los Angeles was serviceable enough the Sunday before last to set in motion a fine musical performance.

One of the peculiar alchemies of Verdi's operas is how potent visual aspects of scenic design and costuming are to the realization of their musical qualities. The composer's works thrive on color and this Rigoletto was no exception.

Director Mark Lamos and designer Michael Yeargan were reportedly inspired by the work of metaphysical surrealist painter Giorgio De Chirico, who, in addition to the genre's expected odd angles and precise geometry, imbedded referential imagery in his work that is not part of this production's scheme. Rather, the set's overall look is redolent of the tamed surrealism encountered in modernist commercial art in the decades immediately after the Second World War.

What remains of De Chirico's style in Mark McCullough's lighting design are hyperreal primary colors imbued with symbolism -- red for various guises of love, inky blue for the treacheries of night, powder blue for a daughter's innocence. Populating and energizing the dated set are Constance Hoffman's appropriately garish carnival costumes and bizarre masks that swagger hither and yon with the antics of the sybaritic Duke of Mantua's decadent retinue.

Lamos' movement of the principals advanced dramatic encounters efficiently. Their voices were strong and notably flexible in the large hall, with similar vocal colorations helping to solidify the evening's musical values.

Georgian native George Gagnidze, making his company debut in the title role, sustained with ease the high tessitura of the baritone role through an emotional journey from callous, energetically cynical courtier, to cursed, helpless father. In the process he created a repugnant Rigoletto of genuine pathos.

Sarah Coburn's sweet-voiced Gilda, gaining in stamina throughout the evening, traversed her own dramatic journey from innocence to despair with riveting grace and dignity. Gianluca Terranova's Duke of Mantua sang like a god of wantonness, breaking his own new ground as a seductive cad. In their entwining love duet of the second act, the two showered the Pavilion with tendrils of sonic perfume.

Bass Daniel Sumegi was memorable in his pungent appearances as the wounded father, Count Monterone, whose curse in the first scene sets the tragic drama in motion. Andrea Silvestrelli's dark bass as the assassin Sparafucile was as unforgiving as Rigoletto's earlier cynic had been cavalier. The other roles were all effectively delivered.

James Conlon's orchestra was equally a star performer: cohesive within the ranks, its tempos acutely focused on intensifying the action. Balances with singers, including Grant Gershon's crackerjack choristers, were near perfect. With colors sparkling, the third act storm music was in razor sharp calculation with lighting effects. Whether due to adjustments in the seating of musicians this season or to fully opening the cavernous Chandler Pavilion's pit, the orchestra's sonic presence is happily growing at each outing.

What struck this listener in Conlon and Company's finely gauged performance was how advanced Verdi's score sounded. Composed in 1850, it was his break-through to full maturity. (Interestingly, Richard Wagner at this time was forming preliminary ideas on the Ring Cycle that would bring his own work to its full flowering.)

While we still hear the um-pa-pa rhythm of "La donna e mobile", it is used here not as a musical crutch but as irony, underscoring the Duke of Mantua's Johnny-one-note narcissism. It is in the music for the tragic father figure of Rigoletto that Verdi formulated his greatest characterization to date, one that makes this work his first immortal masterpiece.

Verdi was to say in his old age that he could compose another Otello, but he would never again approach the greatness of Rigoletto.

Who are we to argue?

Rigoletto runs through December 18 - LA Opera for tickets.
Rodney Punt can be reached at Rodney@artspacifica.net. Photo credit: LA Opera