Opera San José's current production of Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto gives you your Verdi straight. The opera is simply staged, with traditional costumes and sets. This is not a production that seeks new interpretations or insights by updating or rethinking the opera. Instead, with strong singing and acting from the leads and the ensemble, the brilliance of the score and the drama of the carefully constructed libretto by Francesco Maria Piave come alive.
Opera San José maintains a resident company, meaning that many of the singers stay with the company for at least a year and perform a variety of roles throughout the season. Working primarily with young singers early in their careers, Opera San José offers them opportunities to perform significant roles and to work together as a company over time. Many of the productions, including this one, are double cast.
A quick synopsis: Rigoletto is a hunchbacked court jester for the corrupt and licentious Duke of Mantua. In the opening scene, Rigoletto is cursed by a nobleman whose daughter has been ruined by the Duke. The curse terrifies Rigoletto because he has a daughter, Gilda, whom he is keeping secluded in order to protect her from the decadent court. Despite Rigoletto's precautions, the Duke seduces Gilda. Rigoletto swears revenge and plots to kill the Duke, but unbeknownst to him Gilda decides to sacrifice herself for love and is killed instead. At the end of the opera, Rigoletto discovers her body and is devastated at the loss of the only thing he loved in the world.
In this performance, Rigoletto, Gilda, and the Duke were all portrayed by strong singers and actors with specific and believable approaches to their roles. Andrew Fernando physically embodied the challenging role of Rigoletto, limping heavily on one leg. While he sometimes strained in the upper register, he had a rich lower sound and conveyed a sense of barely contained fury and frustration. As the Duke, Isaac Hurtado sang with a smooth tenor and had a charm that recalled the iconic high school golden boy... star athlete, top student, president of the class. But the Duke's magnetism is equaled only by his indifference to the suffering that he leaves in his wake. As Gilda, Rochelle Bard enchanted the audience with a bright tone and floating coloratura. Gilda came alive as she fell in love with the Duke, transforming from an uneasily obedient child into a more complex and confident young woman.
In the overture the orchestra set the tone for the dark story to come, creating a foreboding mood that clashed with the hedonistic laughter of the opening scene. Soon after Rigoletto's terror came through clearly as he recalled the old man's curse in a dotted rhythm echoing another famous avenging father of opera, the Commendatore in Mozart's Don Giovanni. But some of the most stirring moments of the evening were quieter, including Bard's riveting and seemingly effortless performance of the virtuosic 'Caro nome" in which Gilda recalls the name of her beloved. Another quietly compelling scene occurred in Rigoletto and Gilda's duet in Act II, after Rigoletto discovered that the Duke seduced his daughter. The father and daughter began standing apart from each other but the music slowly united them for a rare moment in which forgiveness trumped vengeance.
Melodrama at the level and intensity established during the first two acts is difficult to sustain, and there was a noticeable drop in energy during the third act. But overall the performers had enough commitment and emotion to keep audience members on the edges of their seats. With this Rigoletto, Opera San José offers a strong and compelling production of one of Italian opera's great masterpieces.
Opera San José's production of Rigoletto is at the California Theatre through Sunday, February 24, 2008. The California Theatre is located at 345 South First Street, San José. For tickets and information visit www.operasj.org.