Giuseppe Verdi’s licentious Duke of Mantua in his opera Rigoletto does not have to worry about paying hush money to cover up his sexual escapades. His entire court not only knows about them, but they relish his unchecked indulgence—none more than the opera’s title character, the court jester Rigoletto.
San Diego Opera opened a smart, vocally rich production of this classic gem of Grand Guignol theatrics Saturday, February 2, at San Diego Civic Theatre. Combining a large cast of stylish Verdian voices with Michael Cavanaugh’s sleek, tight direction, from the unstinting, rapturous opening night applause levels, General Director David Bennett has clearly pleased everyone from the posh donors in the choice main floor seating to the ordinary folks in the nosebleed upper balconies.
Several voices new to the San Diego Opera stage brightened this traditional production, especially Alisa
Jordheim’s scintillating, supple soprano as Gilda. I have never heard a more confident, beautifully shaped “Caro nome,” Gilda’s defining cameo aria, and Jordheim’s poise throughout the opera gave Rigoletto’s sheltered daughter an unflinching definition of self-awareness that is rare in this role. As the Duke of Mantua, Scott Quinn displayed a rich, Italianate tenor that gracefully sailed through the gorgeous melodies Verdi lavished on his character. The Duke is no hero, but Quinn revealed some of his more redeeming qualities in his marvelous extended duet with Gilda in their First Act encounter. Kyle Albertson’s dark bass-baritone and bold yet succinct characterization of the professional assassin Sparafucile uplifted his role far above the typical smarmy hit man who slinks around many a Rigoletto production.
Baritone Stephen Powell, a veteran performer with San Diego Opera who gave us a powerful Giorgio Germont in the company’s 2017 La traviata, grew into an equally commanding Rigoletto in this production. In the opening scene I found him less than ideally focused and almost lost in the crowd of preening courtiers. But by the time he unleashed his rage followed by his remorse over his daughter’s fate at the hands of the Duke in his second act aria “Cortigiani, vil razza damnata,” he had his audience in the palm of his hand.
Bass-baritone Scott Sikon, another company regular, brought his vocal heft and a welcome dignity to Count Monterone, the member of the Duke’s court who Rigoletto mocks, eliciting the curse the Count pronounces on both the jester and the dissolute Duke. In an early version of this opera, Verdi chose the title La maledizione (The Curse), but changed his mind along the way to use the name of his protagonist.
As Giovanna, Gilda’s duenna, mezzo-soprano Sarah-Nicole Carter fulfilled her duties congenially, as did contralto Alissa Anderson as Maddalena, Sparafucile’s sister, in whom the Duke has expressed a particular interest.
This Rigoletto offered an array of compelling duets, but the third act quartet of Quinn, Anderson, Powell and Jordheim revealed the opera’s emotional crisis in robust, elevated vocal prowess. Only the magical storm scene that followed—a combination of Verdi’s clever orchestration and Anne-Catherine Simard-Deraspe’s inventive lighting design—could have eclipsed the quartet’s striking emotional impact.
Steven White coaxed a rousing but cleanly defined account of Verdi’s rich score from the San Diego Symphony in the pit, and the men of Chorus Master Bruce Stasyna’s chorus provided full-bodied might for the Duke’s court, a crucial factor in the drama.
As mentioned earlier, Michael Cavanaugh’s direction proved admirable in its insistent pacing of the drama. I felt he efficiently solved the problem of staging the difficult act one scene where the men of the court trick the blindfolded Rigoletto into holding a ladder to a neighbor’s house—thinking he is helping a shady abduction—while they actually abduct his own daughter from her chambers. And I thought his placement of the disguised Duke on the stairway just above Gilda and Giovanna as they sing their duet on the patio below added to the suspense of Gilda’s unexpected encounter with the Duke. Robert Dahlstrom’s set designs proved adequate, although the huge erotic sculpture that dominated the grand hall of the ducal palace was a masterstroke.
This performance of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” was presented by San Diego Opera on Saturday, February 2, 2019, in the San Diego Civic Theatre. The opera will be repeated in the same venue on February, 5, 8, and 10.