Monday, August 12, 2019

Seattle Opera: Rigoletto

I saw a fantastic production of Verdi's Rigoletto at the Seattle Opera on Saturday.  Dark, brutal, completely engrossing. 

Director Lindy Hume has updated the action from 15th-century Italy to modern Italy, or, to be more precise, to what appears to be Silvio Berlusconi's Italy.  The Duke's palace is lush and stylish; TV screens adorn the walls, the doors are gold-plated, the seats are red velvet, the walls themselves are shiny dark marble.  The Duke's courtiers wear business suits.  Verdi’s 1851 tale of political corruption and sexual violence doesn’t feel dated in the least bit.

And at the heart of it all is the brooding, tormented figure of Rigoletto - a hunchback, an object of derision, and a jester in the court of the Duke of Mantua.  As for the Duke, he's a slimebag, a tyrant, gladly using his position to seduce/rape as many girls as he can.  And if a father complains about a violated daughter, as one does at the beginning of the opera, the Duke simply has him put to death on trumped up charges.  His courtiers, all male, encourage and applaud the Duke's behavior.  

Lester Lynch (Photo: Philip Newton)
But the nastiest SOB in the Duke's retinue is Rigoletto.  His cruel wit and viscousness, solidly buffered by self-loathing, have earned him the hate of all the couriers.  As the play opens, the courtiers have discovered that Rigoletto has a mistress - and a young and beautiful one, too.  True to form, they decide to kidnap her.  But she's not his mistress.  She’s his daughter, the innocent and sheltered Gilda.  Gilda is the joy of her father's life.  Yet she, too, has her own secret.  She's being courted by a handsome youth she met in church.  She loves him.  We know, though, that the lad is actually the predatory Duke in disguise.

And so the stage is set for operatic mayhem, though the carnage will fall almost entirely on the sweet and innocent Gilda.  The evil-doers - all men - will get away with everything while our defenseless heroine will be kidnapped and then raped.  After that, of course, the only way for her to set things right - according to the demented attitude of 19th-century theatergoers towards women - is for her to sacrifice herself out of love for her rapist and be brutally murdered.  And so she is.  Yes, it's all very fucked up.  By comparison the 18th-century was a paragon of sanity.  After all, at the end of Mozart's Don Giovanni (1787) it's the philandering Don who is dragged into Hell, not his victims.  And in Cosí Fan Tutte (1790) sexual infidelity is treated as simply the way of the world; no one is thrown into a sack and stabbed to death over it. 

Liparit Avetisyant (Photo: Sunny Martini)

Press coverage of this production has mostly emphasized its political aspects.  It's "a surefire argument starter" The Seattle Times writes.  (I could argue with that but I won’t.)  The misogyny on display in Rigoletto will endure, according to The Stranger, "so long as we continue to uphold longstanding social and political norms around consent, harassment, and male power."  All very true.  But don't let the political chatter deter you from seeing this production.  Hume keeps her focus on the human drama at the center of this opera.  From the moment the curtain rises and we see a lone Rigoletto sitting in a darkened room while the stark and brooding prelude plays (Carlo Montanaro is the conductor), it’s obvious that we’re in the hands of a director of intelligence.  Even the sets tell a story.  The Duke's palace fills the whole stage, but the other locations - a bar, a bus stop, Rigoletto's home - are small.  They only take up a few feet on a stage consumed in darkness.  Outstanding work on the part of Production Designer Richard Roberts and Lighting Designer Jason Morphett.      

Madison Leonard (Photo: Sunny Martini)

The singing in Rigoletto is magnificent.  Lester Lynch is riveting in the title role.  He is as good an actor as he is a singer.  Dressed in ill-fitting clothes, he walks and lumbers about the stage clumsily, painfully.  Does he have chilblains?  Flat feet?  One cannot tell.  But Lynch conveys to us that Rigoletto’s deformity is more than merely a hump on his back.  Physical shame and psychological angst are his lot.  Gilda is such an idealized figure that it’s hard to find her believable, yet Madison Leonard does just that.  Hers is a thoughtful performance, full of restraint and depth.  The Act I duets between her and Lynch, played out in their dingy kitchen, are heartfelt and gripping.  These two have chemistry together.  They feel like a real family, never more so than when struck with tragedy.  Liparit Avetisyant, making his Seattle Opera debut as the Duke, was also noteworthy.  He looked as natural in a three-piece suit surrounded by cronies as he does when disguised as a student to win over Gilda.  In fact, just clip a name tag to his sweater when he’s in the latter role and he could pass as a some fresh-faced new college grad working at a tech company.  And finally, kudos are also due to the chorus of male courtiers who surround the Duke.  Whether tormenting Rigoletto, sexually harassing any available female, or sleeping off last night's orgy butt-naked on the sofa, they are a macho and detestable lot.  We even find some generals and clergymen in their midst (and no doubt PJ and Squee are in there somewhere, too). How one would like to see them all in handcuffs at The Hague.  If only.

Rigoletto will play at McCaw Hall until August 28th.

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