Operagoing is pretty much like having sex. Tired, hastily assembled performances are endured in the hope of hitting that occasional quasi-religious experience. Much time is spent waxing nostalgic over great evenings that can never be repeated and fantasizing about future ones, casting and recasting them in your head. And, as important as the details of an actual performance may be, much of your enjoyment depends on the expectations you bring to it and what else you’ve come across to compare it to.
Ultimately, opera is as capable of generating ecstasy as it is despondency, and as ripe for devotion as it is for merciless parody. Washington Opera’s current revival of Verdi’s Rigoletto is a fairly impotent affair—a lot of huffing and puffing and not much of a payoff—with the exception of a single transcendent performance that is the stuff of romantic dreams.
The opera itself is an outright winner. Not a philosophical treatise like The Ring or a perfectly crafted jewel box like Figaro or Cosi, Rigoletto is lyrical Italian writing at its most exuberant. Just over two hours long, the score is written with tremendous economy and filled with a career’s worth of tunes. Like Verdi’s other middle-period masterpieces, Rigoletto is a meeting ground between the rarified beauties of bel canto and the propulsive drama of verismo. There’s not a note wasted, not a passion left untapped.
Which doesn’t mean Rigoletto is performance-proof. A lurid little 19th-century melodrama, it concerns the charmingly lascivious Duke of Mantua, his hunchbacked jester/henchman Rigoletto, and Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda, whose rape at the Duke’s hands doesn’t stop her from sacrificing her life for him. It’s all very purple: Our sympathies are demanded for a grinning creep of a romantic lead, a homicidal title character, and an impossibly naive heroine. (The Duke’s golden oldie, “La Donna e Mobile,” pedals the usual operatic horseshit about women’s “fickleness” causing men’s infidelities, though you can’t beat its tune for hummability while waiting for that post-show taxi.)
The opera is loaded with curses, split-second conversions, and mustache-twirling villains. If not approached with care, Rigoletto can play like a parody of itself. But if you listen to the classic recording with Tito Gobbi in the title role, you’ll find Shakespearean dimensions not hinted at by most interpreters. (It’s not so far-fetched: Verdi wrote Rigoletto around the time he was contemplating an opera based on King Lear.)
Shakespeare, alas, isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you watch Haijing Fu’s performance in the WashOp production. To his credit, Fu avoids the pitfall of playing the hunchback as some courtly cousin to the evil Barnaby in March of the Wooden Soldiers. But there’s still too much old-school posturing, and Fu’s moments of restraint seem less a matter of choice than of limited interpretive gifts. His current vocal state doesn’t help things, either. Afflicted with Bert Lahr syndrome, he launches his held notes with a rich, virile tone, only to let them disintegrate into a flapping wobble that plays havoc with pitch. His voice is too compromised to allow supple shaping of a musical phrase or detailed point-making within the text, even if he were predisposed toward such things.
Jorge Lopez-Yanez’s Duke is better sung, with a bright and agile (if adenoidal) spinto tenor, yet only the broadest outline of the Duke’s character emerges, in stock gestures washed over with a bland affability. His weakness is indicative of the production as a whole, and responsibility rests with director Marta Domingo (Mrs. Tenor). Again and again, her staging makes the production seem like a Rigoletto you’ve seen before—like every Rigoletto you’ve seen before. The G-rated revelry choreographed into the Duke’s Act 1 party; the sidling and lurking of the murderer, Sparafucile; the corona of immobile courtiers surrounding Rigoletto as he seeks out his ravished daughter: This is opera by the numbers. It’s astonishing how consistently Verdi eludes this company. Yet again, WashOp has fielded a prettily costumed, solidly sung (for the most part) Verdi production that’s dramatically inert and—what’s more damaging—slightly ridiculous.
It needn’t be like this. Think back to director Jonathan Miller’s Mafia-noir staging for the English National Opera in the ’80s. Set among the tenements and social clubs of ’50s lower Manhattan, and enlivened by a sharp new English translation, the production nailed the sardonic leer at the center of Rigoletto, making it feel not merely fresh, but improbably relevant. Miller found heartbreak and startling humor in the piece and showed what’s possible when the safety net is left folded up at home.
I thought about Miller’s English version as I sat through Act 1 of Domingo’s production. Was language the issue? There’s a sector of the critical establishment that insists that only singers steeped in a particular language and culture can do justice to their national opera tradition, digging past external technique and animating their roles from within. WashOp’s Rigoletto could certainly be a test case for that theory, with a cast list that reads like a League of Nations roll call. This is an Italian opera performed by (I’m not kidding) a Chinese Rigoletto, a Mexican Duke, a Russian Gilda, and a Yugoslavian/Costa Rican/American/
Ronamian/Italian (yeah, one slipped in) supporting cast, all singing under the baton of a German conductor and the guiding hand of a Spanish director. (The replacement cast for certain November performances also includes singers from the Japan, and Cuba.)
For all that, nothing is amiss musically, nothing stylistically out of keeping with good Verdi singing. Technique is consistently solid throughout the cast, and, though he rarely makes your blood race, conductor Heinz Fricke keeps things lively enough in the pit. Still, as I listened to Act 1 sailing very pleasantly and very correctly by, and as I remembered countless performances in which pleasantness and correctness have substituted for spine-tingling excitement, I began to wonder whether you really do need an Italian grandma somewhere in the kitchen to make great sauce.
Then Anna Netrebko made her entrance. It may sound insufferably cliched to say that a window seemed to open and the stage filled with light, but that was the experience. (And that was no small feat, considering how dark Zach Brown’s ebony set and Joan Sullivan-Genthe’s dusky lighting kept things all evening.) Only in her mid-20s, Netrebko is the Kirov Opera’s jaw-droppingly pretty new coloratura sensation. She was dazzling last season in a Ruslan and Lyudmila the Kirov brought to the Met, though success in obscure Russian works doesn’t guarantee an idiomatic response to Verdi. How many Slavic sopranos have foundered on the lyrical demands of the Italian literature, where steely tone and odd Russian vowels sit so uncomfortably?
No worries. Netrebko was extraordinary. I can’t remember a more convincingly girlish Gilda, one for whom genuine youth, litheness, and quiet dignity created so natural and unforced a characterization. And that voice: Pure silver in tone, its edges rounded and burnished, it’s an instrument capable of both riding over a full orchestra or fining down to a thread of pianissimo. Hers is—no exaggeration—a golden-age sound. Her coloratura work is impressive in its pinpoint accuracy, and her gently flickering vibrato proves a flexible vehicle for conveying the moment-to-moment emotional life of a character. Netrebko obviously has the potential for a tremendous career; I only hope ambition, overbooking, ego, and the other ravages of a celebrity opera career don’t rob her—and us—of her gifts.
As it stands, she constitutes the one reason to see this Rigoletto. But act fast: Tickets aren’t exactly easy to come by, and Netrebko isn’t scheduled to sing the performances of Nov. 11 and 26. If you attend the Nov. 23 performance, you can catch both Netrebko and Fu’s replacement, Kimm Julian, who was such a compelling singing-actor as John Proctor in last season’s production of The Crucible. CP