Friday Night: Verdi's Rigoletto at the Cowell Theater

Rigoletto-mocked.jpg
David Cox as Rigoletto

Verdi's Rigoletto
Cowell Theater, Fort Mason
April 17, 2009
Better than:
Most other artistic endeavors involving singing clowns.

Feminists beware: Any production of Giuseppe Verdi's 1851 Rigoletto may send you fleeing to a more, well, empowering environment at the intermission -- and that's before the iconic aria "La donna é mobile" ("Woman is fickle") documents our flaws. Which would be a shame, because San Francisco Lyric Opera's current production of this operatic classic is eminently worth sticking around for.

The action transpires in the Italian town of Mantua, here updated to resemble the sleazy gangland Chicago of the 1920s. You half expect Bad, Bad Leroy Brown to put in an appearance, but the resident scumbag in this case is the Duke (tenor Jesús León), an incurable womanizer whose retinue includes the titular jester, Rigoletto (baritone David Cox), whose antics largely serve to prop up the Duke's ego at the expense of his rivals. (The Duke's retinue also includes, amusingly enough, a dreadlocked thug with a tommy gun -- the keeper of the ducal stash, perhaps?)

The opera has scarcely begun when Rigoletto finds himself in hot water for mocking the husband of one of the Duke's conquests and the father of another, who calls down a curse upon the clown. This curse ends up being visited upon the person of Gilda (soprano Rebecca Sjöwall), Rigoletto's daughter, whom he wisely keeps hidden from the lecherous menfolk of Mantua. But word of the lovely Gilda's existence gets around, and she becomes the focal point of schemes to either get revenge on Rigoletto for his tasteless buffoonery, or simply to get some (in the case of the Duke). When Rigoletto himself attempts to get in on the revenge game, calling in the assassin Sparafucile (bass Sergey Zadvorney) to do in his employer, suffice it to say that things do not end well.

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Soprano Rebecca Sjöwall as Gilda and Tenor Jesús León as the Duke.

Impressively, the relatively large cast hits nary a sour note in SFLO's staging of this sordid mess. The three principal characters are particularly solid, discharging their signature scenes with flair (Rigoletto and Gilda's father-daughter duet at the end of Act II is especially affecting). Cox, outfitted with a pair of crutches rather than the traditional humpback, invests the titular role with a pathos that is sure to resonate with anyone whose day job involves toadying to an egomaniacal jerk. As said jerk, León as the Duke is all careless, oily charm, singing of woman's fickleness even while the smitten Gilda plots to save his life by sacrificing hers. Sjöwall brings a powerhouse voice to that role, nicely embodying both naiveté and passion.

Under the sensitive direction of Barnaby Palmer, the smallish orchestra carried off the score with considerable verve. The only disconcerting element of the production was some technical difficulties with the projection of the supertitles -- it's probably safe to say that "Restart Needed" was not included in Francesco Maria Piave's original libretto. This minor issue aside, though, the 122nd production in S.F. Lyric's history picked up where January's Don Giovanni left off, offering an enjoyable and accessible staging of a classic opera.

Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: Any opera that comes with a disclaimer about "mature content" is okay by me, though said content just turned out to be some rather innocuous dry-humping.

Random detail: Someone in the props department obviously has a sense of humor: The bottle of wine on Sparafucile's dining table during Act III is totally Two Buck Chuck.

By the way: Remaining performances are Friday, April 24, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, April 26, at 2 p.m. In Italian, with English supertitles.

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