Quinn Kelsey as the eponymous court jester in Rigoletto. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Giuseppe Verdi, Rigoletto (1851)
Based on: a play by Victor Hugo
Notable Cultural References: Frasier: “Out with Dad” and The Muppet Show: “Pigoletto”
Setting: Mantua, 16th century

Plot in 101 words or less: Rigoletto, a hunchbacked court jester, keeps his beautiful daughter secluded lest she catch the duke’s roving eye. Too late! Gilda has secretly been making googly eyes at him in church. Furious over the jester’s endless mockery, cuckolded noblemen kidnap his “mistress” (i.e., Gilda), bringing her to the duke so he can have his way with her. Rigoletto vows revenge and hires an assassin. Despite knowing the duke’s a no-good scoundrel, Gilda sacrifices herself to save him. Idiot. As Rigoletto dumps the wrapped corpse in the river, he hears the duke singing and discovers it’s Gilda who’s dead. Aw, sad, frowny clown.

Sung in: Italian
Memorable Music: “La donna è mobile”

Rigoletto was originally titled La maledizione (The Curse) after the curse placed on Rigoletto by Count Monterone, here played by Reginald Smith Jr. in his SFO debut. Photo by Cory Weaver.

While Rigoletto is one of my favorite operas from a musical standpoint and I’m happy to see it on stage any chance I get, I wasn’t thrilled when I realized that this summer production was a revival of the one La Maratonista and I saw in 2012. Back then, when it opened the San Francisco Opera’s 90th season, I was simply thrilled to be beginning our first full season subscription. However, I remembered really disliking the sets and costumes, particularly the mostly orange jester’s outfit, and so I was sorry to see them return. I guess since an orange fool has taken over that other house, it was only a matter of time until one took over our opera house as well.

And I guess it’s good that one of these orange fools can sing. Quinn Kelsey—who I have only seen once before, way back in my first season at the opera, in Madama Butterfly—acquits himself quite well in the lead, although something about his restrained performance seemed to make the character of Rigoletto even less sympathetic to me than usual. I know that reviewers have been fawning over this performance, but I’m just not seeing it. In fact, as happened last time I saw this production, it was Gilda that stood out for me. Nino Machaidze, here in her SFO debut, has such a lovely tone that I could forgive her for being not quite powerful enough on the “È amabile invero cotal giovinotto” trio.

Nino Machaidze as Gilda in Rigoletto. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Another stand out for me was Andrea Silvestrelli as Sparafucile. I’ve seen Silvestrelli loads of times, but he has never stood out for me as he did here. Perhaps it’s because I love “È amabile invero cotal giovinotto” so darn much. Unfortunately, I found Pene Pati to be rather uneven in the role of the Duke of Mantua, but I nevertheless appreciate it when Adler Fellows are given solid roles, rather than appearing merely on the fringes. Speaking of Adler Fellows, it was nice to see Zanda Švēde return as Maddalena.

Pene Pati as the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Sparafucile (Andrea Silvestrelli) and Maddalena (Zanda Švēde) plot in Rigoletto. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Again, Rigoletto is one of my musical faves so I guess I should be happy that the singing is as strong as it was, but this production still somehow fell flat for me. Sure, the sets were boring (I mean, blather on about De Chirico all you like, but they are still BORING), but I knew that going in. Ultimately, I think where this production failed me is in the direction. The direction is not something I generally comment on, but here I really think it did the opera a disservice. With such a boring set (I mean, can a girl get some furniture in that house?), you need to have dynamic staging. This production didn’t deliver. The crowds at court were okay for the most part, but the blocking and acting of all the leads really lacked energy and conviction.

What didn’t lack energy was the orchestra, which sounded more dynamic, fluid, and articulate than usual. There was some fine piccolo work by Stephanie McNab (and I rarely like the higher instruments) as well as a great moment for what I thought might be a viola but La Belle Chantal thought was a cello. Which leads me to a thought I had while attending The Cleveland Orchestra last month: I would really appreciate a bit of musical information sprinkled into the plot summaries given in the program. I realize it is sometimes very hard to summarize these crazycakes plots—and Rigoletto is one of the worst (see my prior post for a plot assessment that is far longer than 101 words), but would it hurt to also highlight key arias and musical elements (especially soloists) to look out for? I’d much rather have a few of those tidbits handy than the far-too-detailed articles explaining an opera’s composition. Sure, it is nice to have reading for the ride home, but if the San Francisco Opera wants to get more people to the opera house in the future, it might consider helping them appreciate the performance in front of them.

Rigoletto (Quinn Kelsey) and Gilda (Nino Machaidze) in their darkest hour in Rigoletto. Photo by Cory Weaver.

I suppose this comes across as a fairly negative review, which is not my intention. Maybe that other orange fool has simply gotten me down on this one. And whether this bodes well or ill for next week’s Don Giovanni remains to be seen. In any case, despite this nit-picking, Rigoletto remains one of the best operas for newbies and this production is no exception.

Rigoletto is being performed through July 1 at the War Memorial Opera House. Tickets can be purchased here.