Italian operas will tear your heart out, generally, but Verdi's "Rigoletto" cuts deeper than most. San Francisco Opera's latest staging of this tale of a scornful and scorned court jester is one that cuts sharply and repeatedly. It's devastating -- and quite a way for the company to begin its 90th season.
This handsome and moving production -- first presented in 1997 and directed here by Harry Silverstein -- rests on the commanding singing and stage presence of two of its leads at War Memorial Opera House, where it opened Friday.
Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic, as the jester Rigoletto, has a voice that barbs and caresses his audience, but ultimately fastens it in a treacherous bear hug; his Rigoletto is majestic even when repellent, a lethal combination that goes to the crux of this complex character's humanity. You feel his life force -- even when he is driven to his knees.
Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, as the jester's loving daughter Gilda, has a voice of unusual beauty: pure-toned, silvery as flutes, shimmery and precise in its coloratura flights. Wow. This is her company debut.
On Friday, as she sang the signature aria "Caro nome," it felt like an event. Ditto for her Act I duets with Lucic: the braided voices of Gilda and her devoted, widowed father were exquisite -- and exquisitely shadowed by the orchestra, conducted by Nicola Luisotti, who brought idiomatic authority to Verdi's score.
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Visually, this is a striking production. Michael Yeargan's sets are based on paintings by Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico. Here, the streets of Mantua are stark, shadowed, menacing; they convey a sense of psychological isolation and impending doom. It's a place where an innocent man's curse against the authorities -- it happens in Act I -- feels ominous. The mood is underscored by red backlighting and the scarlet interiors of rooms lining the streets; it's the color of love, lust, blood, shame and devilish evil.
As the Duke of Mantua -- a cad, who relies on Rigoletto to clear the decks for his womanizing, which leads, irony of ironies, to Gilda's ruin -- Italian tenor Francesco Demuro took time to limber up; there were some catches in his voice as he moved between registers. His voice is handsome, if a bit thin, and his acting often lacked ease. Yet he finally broke through, pouring it on for Act III, when a chain of deceptions and misunderstandings leads to the curse's fulfillment -- and innocent Gilda's murder.
In the tenor's hands, the sexist ditty "La donna e mobile" ("Woman is flighty") became an anthem of heartlessness -- showing the duke to be not only a jerk, but a public menace. Demuro, however, was out-menaced by bass Andrea Silvestrelli, as the assassin Sparafucile. His massive voice took on the edge of evil, and practically set columns of air vibrating across the auditorium.
Also excellent -- as Maddalena, the assassin's flirtatious sister -- was mezzo-soprano Kendall Gladen, whose voice was as rich as melted toffee. The chorus, directed by Ian Robertson, was exceptional; during the Act I abduction scene, their voices gathered into finespun timbres -- the sonic equivalents of de Chirico's shadows.
With "Rigoletto" -- based on the Victor Hugo play "Le roi s'amuse" ("The king amuses himself") -- Verdi believed he and librettist Francesco Maria Piave had created a character worthy of Shakespeare, full of a moral ambiguity that can only result in bottomless tragedy. In Lucic's face and comportment, his harsh laughs and bullying, we see a man who is clown and thug, a victimizer of innocent men, as well as the tenderest father to his innocent daughter. On his knees as the curtain falls, holding the dying Gilda in his arms, the victimizer has become the victim.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA
Presenting "Rigoletto," by Guiseppe Verdi
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
Through: Sept. 30
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco