Down and dirty with Santa Fe Opera’s ‘Rigoletto’

Down and dirty with Santa Fe Opera’s ‘Rigoletto’

Things are down and dirty at the Duke of Mantua's palace from the outset, and matters go rapidly downhill from there in this riveting production.

Bruce Sledge.
The depraved Duke of Mantua (tenor Bruce Sledge, center) presides over his amoral and corrupt court. (Photo credit: Ken Howard, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera)

SANTA FE, N.M., August 11, 2015 − Despite its relentlessly sordid story line − based on a controversial drama by Victor Hugo − Verdi’s “Rigoletto” has long been one of the composer’s most popular operas. Loaded with dramatic tension and shot through with brilliant and showy arias, it’s surprising that most productions we’ve seen over the years tend to treat its dark subject matter rather lightly.

Not so the Santa Fe Opera (SFO) in its current production of “Rigoletto.” Things are down and dirty at the Duke of Mantua’s palace from the outset, and matters go rapidly downhill from there. The depravity and nastiness of the Duke’s corrupt and corrupting court is visceral, giving the tragic finale of this riveting production the kind of horrific frisson the composer must surely have intended.

The eponymous central character of “Rigoletto” (baritone Quinn Kelsey) is a nasty, deformed court jester working for the corrupt duke (tenor Bruce Sledge). Rigoletto delights in ridiculing members of the Duke’s court and his enemies alike whenever his boss manages to defile one of their wives or daughters, one of Mantua’s specialties.

Rigoletto is particularly cruel to Count Monterone (bass Robert Pomakov), whose innocent young daughter has just been bedded by the Duke. As a result, Rigoletto earns a stern and eternal curse from Monterone, sometimes that terrifies him. (Not surprisingly, one of Verdi’s early titles for this opera was “La maledizione” –“The Curse.”)

Monterone is not alone in his hatred for the Duke and Rigoletto. A number of the count’s peers despise Rigoletto in particular and devise a plot to kidnap the jester’s rumored mistress and ship her to the Duke to grace his bedchamber in order to gain their revenge.

Georgia Jarman.
Georgia Jarman as Gilda in “Rigoletto.” (Photo credit: Ken Howard, courtesy Santa Fe Opera)

Unfortunately, Rigoletto’s “mistress” is his beautiful, innocent daughter Gilda (soprano Georgia Jarman), a young woman he’s hidden away for years but who’s already been spotted by the Duke’s accomplices.

When the plot succeeds and the Duke has his way with Gilda, Rigoletto plots the Duke’s murder with the villainous assassin, Sparafucile (bass Peixin Chen), an act that leads to the opera’s unfortunate conclusion and the fulfillment of Monterone’s curse.

Verdi’s primary characters are realistic and finely drawn, from the amoral Duke to the virtuous Gilda to the despicable but ultimately tragic Rigoletto. The opera’s plot is also, sadly, quite realistic and grindingly negative, casting the nobility in a decidedly unflattering role, something that risked the censor’s intervention nearly anywhere in post-1848 Europe. Verdi had run-ins with such censors, but still managed to mount the production largely as a result of his own reputation and the intervention of others.

SFO’s production emphasizes the depravity of its allegedly “noble” characters in a way that Verdi likely would have admired. From the outset of this production, set more or less in the 19th century, the Duke’s chambers are laden with partially clad women from all backgrounds, resembling in a way a seedy early edition of the Playboy Mansion and setting the tone for the grim, amoral action that is to follow.

Appropriately, the gloomy costuming as well as the rickety backstreet settings of this production − both by Adrian Linford − serve to emphasize the moral darkness of both the story and its characters. Unfortunately, however, at times Rick Fisher’s lighting design renders the entire stage so dark that it becomes difficult at times to follow either the singers or the action.

We’d suggest brightening things just a bit in remaining performances would retain director Lee Blakeley’s hard-hitting vision for this production while literally shedding a bit more welcome light on its sterling cast.

And we do mean sterling. This is one of the best-sung “Rigolettos” we’ve seen in many years, and also one of the truest, we think, to Verdi’s actual vision for this work.

In the performance we attended last week, both Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto) and Bruce Sledge (the Duke) were standouts.

Mr. Kelsey’s seedy, lumbering Rigoletto was as remarkable for his self-loathing behavior as he was for his uncommon tenderness when it came to the treatment of his daughter, the only ray of sunshine in his life. Yet somehow, Mr. Kelsey also generated pathos for his otherwise despicable character as he reacts with horror and shame as he gradually comes to understand the revenge the Duke and his associates have wreaked by defiling his greatest treasure. His strong, steady baritone voice brilliantly embodies the essence of Rigoletto’s complex and conflicted character.

Bruce Sledge’s Duke is Rigoletto’s polar opposite. The Duke is a disgusting character to be sure. But Mr. Sledge slyly makes things seem even worse by playing his character with a depraved and almost lighthearted joy, emphasizing the Duke’s utter amorality even more strongly.

He’s helped, of course, by the fact that Verdi wrote for the Duke a pair of opera’s best-ever tenor arias, the first act’s casually light, disdainful “Questa o quella” (“This woman or that one”) and the brilliant and memorable “La donna è mobile” (“A woman is fickle”).

Although Mr. Sledge was slightly difficult to hear in the early moments of Act I, perhaps due to his placement on stage, his voice quickly blossomed, providing a liquid, quicksilver rendition of one of Verdi’s most famous villains.

Rigoletto (Quinn Kelsey, right) schemes with Sparafucile (Peixin Chen, left) to eliminate the Duke. (Photo credit: Ken Howard, courtesy Santa Fe Opera)
Rigoletto (Quinn Kelsey, right) schemes with Sparafucile (Peixin Chen, left) to eliminate the Duke. (Photo credit: Ken Howard, courtesy Santa Fe Opera)

For sympathy and pathos in this gritty opera, we must turn to the one truly good character in “Rigoletto,” the central character’s religious, good-hearted daughter, Gilda. She is touchingly portrayed by Georgia Jarman, whose silken, almost winsome soprano voice brings her tragic character vividly and tragically to life.

In smaller but greatly significant roles, bass Peixin Chen and mezzo-soprano Nicole Piccolomini shine in their complimentary roles as the assassin Sparafucile and his decidedly uncharming prostitute sister, amusingly named Maddalena. Mr. Chen deep, dark bass voice radiates danger and threat, while Ms. Piccolomini’s smoky mezzo is at once sexually alluring while radiating an entirely different, almost seductive kind of menace.

In the much smaller yet highly significant role of Count Monterone, bass Robert Pomakov, notches a key moral victory as he voices his character’s violent, passionate curse with such force that it drives the rest of this production, a remarkable feat for such a brief time on stage.

For the umpteenth time, kudos is again in order for the 2015 edition of the SFO’s fine chorus. Ditto for the SFO Orchestra under the steady and empathetic baton of Jader Bignamini.

Bravo for Lee Blakeley’s and SFO’s compelling and fittingly dark vision for this “Rigoletto,” one of Verdi’s greatest masterpieces. By putting a few more lumens to work to illuminate the action unfolding in and around Adrian Linford’s labyrinthine backstreet set, SFO will find it has a winning, original, and compelling production worthy of comparison with the best.

Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)

Five performances of “Rigoletto” remain. For tickets and information, visit the Santa Fe Opera website.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17