Washington Opera's  Rigoletto

by Jan Rosen

Saturday, October 23, 1999 I was back in my favorite seat in the Kennedy Center for the opening of Washington Opera's 1999-2000 season. It felt good to be sitting up there in my usual seat on the Second Tier with eager anticipation for the opening of Rigoletto. I just can't resist the elegant beauty of the Kennedy Center, with its soft lights and red opulent carpeting. Something very relaxing about the place. I want to kick off my shoes and stockings and walk around there barefoot. Of course, my favorite "room" in the Kennedy Center is the 2,300-seat Opera House!

This is the first in a series of off-the-cuff impressions of operas I have seen in the Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore Area. Hope you enjoy the reviews, and if you also happened to have seen the same productions I saw, please share with me your impressions by e-mailing comments here.

Now... on to Rigoletto:
First, a look at the major cast members:

Rigoletto – Haijing Fu
Gilda – Anna Netrebko
Giovanna – Kathleen Segar
Duke of Mantua – Jorge Lopez-Yanez
Count Monterone – John Marcus Bindel
Sparafucile – Simone Alberghini
Maddelena – Svetlana Serdar

Conductor – Heinz Fricke
Director – Marta Domingo

Heinz Fricke is the only one on this list whom I have actually met and have seen perform regularly (as conductor). He was superb as usual, gently shaping the music, bringing out the right timbres and tempos to match the voices. One of the tricks of good opera conducting is not letting the orchestra overshadow the voices. Verdi's music is powerful, melodic, full of color and emotion. Fricke knows how to keep the right balance between voice and orchestra. This is something he does so well, even with the most difficult operatic works such as "Tristan," which I saw him conduct and lecture on last winter. Certainly a musician's musician.

I mentioned voice as that was one of the things about the performance I would have changed. Not enough vocal projection. As this was my first Rigoletto, I can't really comment on how loud and forceful those voices should have been. The voices were beautiful, but not very loud and sometimes it was hard to hear them. The voices didn't always project over the orchestra like they should have.

The second thing I would have changed is the constant applause between numbers. Maybe it's my obsession with Wagner operas, where this rarely happens. I found that applause very distracting. In one scene, forgot which, the whole cast stopped performing and started bowing mid-scene! A bit uneven, to be sure!

Haijing Fu as Rigoletto didn't fulfill the stereotype of the deformed hunchback or attempt to give a negative image to people with disabilities. Verdi's hero here is supposed to have a disability, and that is alluded to, but should not be the main focus. Verdi's times were different from ours, however, and his perspectives on "hunchbacks" might have been very different from ours. (It is interesting to note that Thalidomide victim, baritone Thomas Quasthoff, has been offered the role of Rigoletto in other productions and he has turned it down). My personal feeling is that his disability is not why Rigoletto is the way he is. Rigoletto's plight as father could be the plight of any father who has an only child, a daughter, and feels a misfit in society. Rigoletto's "difference" makes him a vengeful recluse getting back at society. Rigoletto says his weapon is words (as opposed to Sparafucile's of knives – and according to Rigoletto this makes them both alike). The only difference in appearance between Fu and the other men in the duke's court is that Fu was dressed in red and white stripped vest and stockings, as opposed to the black velvet of the nobles. Fu's voice is excellent, by the way, and this was the first time I had heard him sing.

Ms. Netrebko as Gilda did a masterful job acting the part of a sheltered, naive daughter trying to be a bit more independent of her loving and excessively overprotective father. This was the first time I had seen her perform, and I was impressed. Although I loved watching and hearing all of the others who were on stage, Netrebko's performance was my favorite of the whole production. She acts, she sings. Through my opera glasses I got a good look at her face, and noted the facial expressions. She is very expressive and moves appropriately to fit what she is singing. She also knows where to put the right amount of coloratura. Real bel canto singing at its best.

Lopez-Yanez sang satisfactorily as the Duke of Mantua, but I would have hoped his voice would have projected more. When he was playing the role of the Duke in Act I he seemed so immobile and his voice didn't carry well. He relaxed later on, and his brillance as a performer came through beginning in Act II, when he sneaks into Rigoletto's home disguised as the poor, penniless student. He did well playing the part of the desperate lover. Certainly would have fooled me (as he does to Gilda) if he had come protesting his love to me! His fooling around in the tavern with the dancer Maddalena in Act IV becomes quite comical. Rigoletto and Gilda (whom Rigoletto is trying to convince by showing her how the Duke has betrayed her) are peering in through the windows of Maddalena's house. One forgets Rigoletto and Gilda when watching the Duke and Maddalena, as the two of them are having a great time engaged in their own little dance. Perhaps Lopez-Yanez does better with playing romantic roles than regal ones?

I was also impressed with the staging of this production. Act I opens with with a garish, brightly lit set, which of course is the Duke's palace. Bright spotlights from the ceiling illuminated the singers and dancers. The opening scene resembled a busy city square full of hustle, bustle, and joy. Act II (in this production, scene 2 of Act I, but it is Act II in my libretto), in Rigoletto's home, there are dark shadows, steamy mists, greys and dark hues, with light filtering in softly from left and right of stage. At home, Rigoletto does not wear his red and white jester's costume. He is dressed in the same black drab outfit as the assassin, Sparacfucile. Gilda, however, in contrast to her father, is brightly dressed at home. I forgot the color of her dress, but I think color here is used to represent feelings and ideas. Rigoletto's dark colors at home represent the dark colors in his soul. Innocent Gilda wears the light colors symbolizing purity. Again, at the Duke's palace, Rigoletto is in his red and white jester's costume, and the set is awash with bright yellows and royal velvet designs. In Act IV, the only light is that coming from the house where the Duke and Maddalena play. The rest of the set in Act IV is awash in mistiness. Clouds form and move on the backdrop in back of the stage, giving the impression of an approaching storm. I found the contrast of light and dark in Act IV very interesting. Lightness associated with the Duke/Maddalena and darkness associated with Rigoletto/Gilda. I haven't taken the time to analyze it.

Anyway, those are my impressions.

Coming up next – Massenet's El Cid with Plácido Domingo in the title role.

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