Monday, August 12, 2019

Rigoletto in Seattle

Seattle Opera opened its 2019-2020 season with Verdi’s Rigoletto. Although the company seemed to have long departed from its summer Wagnerian tradition, the quality of the music making made the trip to the Emerald City worthwhile.

It is quite rare to witness an opera production where all the voices are so consistently good. From the major roles to the relatively smaller parts like Countess Ceprano, Count Monterone, Giovanna, and Sparafucile (who stole the show with his powerful voice and the force of his personality), the company had surely assembled a vocal ensemble of exceptionally high quality. 

Some day we will see a portrayal of Duke of Mantua that conveys the cynicism as well as the jaded-in-life qualities that, for me, this character is filled with. Liparit Avetisyan’s beautiful voice has a bright and ringing quality that makes it very appealing to hear. If he continues to develop, he could, in time, be singing meatier and weightier tenor roles. Perhaps my only “complaint” is that, in spite of his best efforts, he made it difficult for us to detest the character! 

On opening night, soprano Madison Leonard displayed incredible vocal control over every aspect of her challenging role. Her singing of “Caro nome”, in addition to displaying incredible vocal control, convincingly brought forth the innocence of her character and the feelings of a young girl in love for the first time.

Seattle favourite Lester Lynch brought to the title role Rigoletto a human and humane quality that made the final tragedy all the more heartbreaking and poignant. He successfully conveyed the conflicting feelings of a father, torn by his almost obsessive love for his daughter and the shame of seeing her shame. The confrontation between father and daughter in Act II was musically electrifying. 

Conductor Carlo Montanaro controlled every facet of Verdi’s complex score, and his relatively brisk tempi brought a sense of urgency and tension we do not often hear. Certainly he brought out beautiful playing from members of the Seattle Symphony. For me, Mary Lynch’s oboe solo that introduces “Tutte le feste al tempio” was particularly heartfelt and affecting. This is surely an opera conductor who will go far. 

I must say that I was worried when I read the notes by director Lindy Hume and Scholar in Residence Naomi Andr√©, with words like “misogynistic”, “destructive parents”, and “toxic masculinity” filling the pages. Fortunately, their rhetoric appears worse than the production, which turned out to not more than setting the opera in the present day. Apparently, the director was inspired by the shenanigans of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi when she decided to update the opera. In the programme notes, she explained why she simply had to update the opera, to make this “Renaissance-era codpiece-cloak-and-hose setting” relevant to today’s audience. Apologies to Victor Hugo for not making this story relevant!

Such is the climate of antagonism towards religion today that the director felt it necessary to insert two Cardinals amongst the Duke’s entourage, who also took part in Gilda’s kidnapping! Other than revealing the director’s own biases, this little touch makes no dramaticsense, and certainly added nothing to the story.

The problem with such updating is that it made the human relationships in the opera meaningless, even irrelevant. When Rigoletto confronted Gilda in Act II, where the young girl – looking very disheveled and wearing nothing more than a man’s shirt – dressing Rigoletto in modern vest and pants, rather than the vulgar jester’s costume indicated by Verdi, took away completely the shock and horror of this pivotal scene. And perhaps such is the climate of our sexualized society, that Maddalena’s seduction of the Duke involved a highly graphic “table dance”. Clever perhaps, but was this really necessary?

Instead of looking at Verdi from our 21stcentury perspective, should we not place ourselves within the context and sensibilities of Verdi’s times in order to really understand and appreciate the drama?

I believe that even the famous “La donna √® mobile” is not Verdi thinking that women are fickle, but it is, with a supreme sense of irony, the composer chiding menfor not thinking with their brains, but with other parts of their anatomy.

Perhaps we should end with the rather more inspiring words of beloved opera commentator Father M. Owen Lee, who’s recent death deprived us of some of the most insightful words into the operatic canon. In his essay on Rigoletto, titled “When Verdi’s Fathers Sing” (Lee, M. Owen, First Intermissions, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 22-23) Father Lee wrote not about “destructive parents”, but the real role of the father: 

“In Italy it is the father who presides over the only permanent social unit: the family. Governments occupying forces, kings, popes, political regimes come and go, but the family is always there, providing the pattern for the larger structures of state and even church…Understanding this patriarchal tradition, so strong in Virgil and Verdi, is the beginning of understanding so many things about Italy that confound the non-Italian, from papal infallibility to The Godfather. Italy’s long patriarchal tradition is not without its dangers, as Verdi’s operas tell us again and again. But no one really understands Verdi, or Italy, who does not understand that tradition, for it shaped both country and composer.”

Perhaps our stage directors should, if they are able to, look deeply into the score, and not their own political agendas, when they try to reveal the secrets imbedded within these great works of art. Fortunately for us, no amount of “-isms” could destroy Verdi’s timelesswork of art. Even more fortunate for me, it was the musicians and singers who made Verdi’s masterpiece meaningful, not directors who think they know better.

Patrick May