The operatic summer season in San Francisco always satisfies with a well-chosen set of just three operas. In the mid-year’ s lull, SF
Opera entertained with classic audience favorites: Rigoletto, Don Giovanni and La BohĂ¨me.
The highlight of Verdi’s tragic opera, and the highlight of the entire summer season, was Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey as Rigoletto.
Kelsey’s voice soars with apparently effortless power and beauty. The richness in vocal color and the psychological depth in his phrasing and acting is so intense that a new
character of modern resonance and relevance arose onstage. The story of the hunchbacked jester who loses his precious daughter to his patron, the lecherous Duke of Mantua, is based
on the play Le roi s’amuse by Victor Hugo. Set in the 16th century, SF Opera plays Rigoletto against a foreboding stage by Michael Yeargan, inspired by Chirico’s paintings. These unforgiving futuristic cityscapes that lean in as if to crush human beings with their screwed and unjust perspectives, enhance the melancholy and oppressive loneliness of the jester and his secluded daughter Gilda. The chiaro-scuro lighting by Gary Marder isolates the figures like marionettes in a puppet theater and brings out the archetypal appeal of the story.
This is not a new production, but under acclaimed English
director Rob Kearley (in his SF debut), all the elements came to shine and create a timeless modernity of Verdi’s hero. One felt a
thrilling closeness to the corrupted, but suffering man who takes on the Duke and his vengeful court with the force of hatred, but
fails, undone by the stronger force of his daughter’s sacrificial love.
Gilda (Photo - D.Ross-Cameron)
Had the other singers been at that same level—let’s say, a Sonya
Yontcheva for Gilda and a Pjotr Beczala for the Duke—this would have been a Rigoletto for the ages. As Gilda, Georgian soprano
Nino Machaidze was lovely and sounded perfect in her duets, but her interesting voice lacked unity in her arias, especially in
“Caro nome,” showing a rough, scratchy edge and overly-wide vibrato. By contrast, her dying pleas to her father to forgive the
Duke, sung mezza-voce, were focused and moving.
Rigoletto, Gilda (Photo - D.Ross-Cameron)
New Zealand tenor Pene Pati, a former Adler Fellow, also had some voice control problems in his debut of the role of the Duke.
He started his opening aria “Questo o quella” as if to bring down the walls of Jericho, but luckily took his trumpets back and
delivered his ruminations about love, “Parmir veder le lagrime,” in a mid-range, intimate register that brought out the
considerable beauty of his instrument. “La Donna e mobile” then went back to the “braying tenor style” of potency rather than
beauty. He is undeniably gifted, but his bulky stiffness and lack of acting apparently defeated the director.
Schrott and d’Arcangelo
Vocal splendor was the undisputed highlight in an otherwise hum-drum production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni,
unsensationally conducted by Mark Minskovski and directed with only a few arresting ideas here and there by Italian Jacopo
Spirei (both company debuts). Bass-baritone Ildebrando d’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni and Erwin Schrott (in his company
debut) as Leporello switched roles after their Met debut in 2008—two experienced, top-notch scoundrels in the roles of the
seducer and his enabling servant. Schrott surprised by leaving the seduction almost entirely to d’Arcangelo’s Don Giovanni.
The usually suave and once glamorous ex-husband of diva Anna Netrebko appeared as a grouchy country-bum Leporello, having
put on considerable weight and pushing a beer-belly before him that was only half covered by the big leather satchel that he
dragged around. His waddle didn’t add to his charisma or to the comedy, but vocally he was perfect and brought the house down
in the seduction scene, charming Donna Elvira (an excellent Ana Maria Martinez) in the Don’s guise by managing a perfect
imitation of d’Arcangelo’s voice with added notes of caricature and comic gestural flourishes also copied on the sly. Schrott
made the usually unbelievable scene for once believable—a hilarious feat.
D’Arcangelo sang and acted his role with a note of danger and aggression, without being exactly sexual. Compared with the
brilliant Santa Fe production of last year and young “barihunk” Daniel Okulitch,* D’Arcangelo’s Don was more cerebrally driven
than physical in his desires. This came out particularly with the pure-as-snow Zerlina of Sarah Shafer—the lovely young soprano
who had impressed as the daughter of Anna Caterina Antonacci in Tutino’s Two Women (La Ciociara), directed by Francesca Zambello, in 2015.**
Her voice once again was a stand-out in silvery radiance and precision, but her take on the role of Zerlina and her acting were
girlish and devoid of sex appeal. It may be a question of maturity in the gifted young singer that her Zerlina had no physical
rapport with either the Don or her betrothed Masetto (a mis-cast Michael Sumuel). Or was it the lacking direction? It was
hard to feel any temptation or even tremor in Shafer’s very pretty “Vorrei e non vorrei.”
Erin Wall as Donna Anna brought beauty and some sensuality to her role, but was less striking under Spirei’s direction than in
other roles I have seen her in (as the heroine of Barber’s Vanessa, for example, or as Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta, and
Stella in Christopher Alden’s superb Tales of Hoffman, both in Santa Fe.***) As if to make up for some missing erotic
suggestion, Spirei added a good dose of it to the final banquet scene. He staged it as a post-orgy night, with several barely
dressed women lying about under the tables, drunk and in comically effective ways entirely undone by the tireless philanderer. ****
Sex-appeal—the astounding charm and wit of soprano Ellie Dehn—saved a performance that seemed like a dish warmed up
too many times. Conductor Carlo Montanaro went through the paces without any of the boldness and panache he showed in last year’s brutal Carmen (by scandalous director Calixto Bieito,
reviewed in these pages). His hurried tempos could not hide a dominant emotional flatness, and John Caird’s direction in this
reprisal begged the question why one should see another luke-warm repetition of the opera. In this rendition, Puccini’s most
successful opera suddenly revealed its own musical repetitiveness.
The four Bohemians were all fine: Mexican tenor Arturo ChacĂłn-Cruz as Rodolfo, Scott Conner as Colline, Audun Iversen as
Marcello. and Brad Walker as a dead-pan Schaunard, but nothing lifted them out of the been-there-done-that routine of
their roles. Erika Grimaldi as Mimi convinced with her dark, colorful voice and intelligent acting, but with a better, more
ardent conductor and more soaring Rodolfo she would have delivered an even more affecting, memorable Mimi. The joyful
street chaos of CafĂ© Momo was once again delightfully executed by the infallible SF Opera Chorus, with many extras, young and old.
Elli Dehn’s Musetta appeared in the noisy night-crowd like a sumptuous hothouse flower. With her creamy, never shrill
soprano and her provocative, lithe body she stole the show at every turn. Dehn is a natural actress who managed to be
appropriately vulgar and yet smart, witty and charming, using every inch of her physique and sexy dress as the weapon of
choice of a courtesan on the rise. At the height of the drama, in Act IV, she sets the tone of dark urgency about Mimi’s
impending death, and somehow her presence brings the cast together in one moment of truly felt emotion, when the patter
stops and everyone is suddenly aware of pain, loneliness and death. Dehn is a star in the making, and it will be exciting to see
her next season together with acclaimed tenor Michael Fabiano, in Massenet’s Manon.
All photos by Cory Weaver unless otherwise indicated