WNO's 'Rigoletto': Needs Direction

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 31, 2008

A friend of mine recently asked what the point is of stage direction in opera. For true opera-lovers, isn't the real focus the music, particularly the singing?

The question came to mind at the Washington National Opera's "Rigoletto" Saturday night, which was as singer-focused a production as you are going to find. Not that there isn't any stage direction. A point of interest, in fact, was the Washington directorial debut of Catherine Malfitano, the noted American soprano who is astutely managing the later years of her career with a combination of appropriate roles (she appeared here last year, memorably, in both "Jenufa" and "A View From the Bridge") and, increasingly, work as a director.

But Malfitano's approach here did not involve a complete "director's concept." That is, rather than coming up with a new visual idea, she worked on deploying the singers within preexisting sets from the Seattle Opera, by Robert Dahlstrom.

Malfitano gave a lot of attention to making sure the action was clear onstage. The first act -- which often can go by so fast that its actions remain opaque to the audience (as the Duke seduces the women of the court, and Rigoletto, his jester, acidly needles the men) -- was for once actually understandable as well as unsavory (this Duke has a taste for prepubescent girls, two of whom are borne in to him in their nightgowns).

But what Malfitano did not manage to do -- in part because of the cast she had to work with -- was give the characters, particularly Rigoletto and the Duke, a sense of inner motivation. The whole thing came across as a kind of detailed pantomime, in which many of the singers went very well through all the requisite "Rigoletto" motions (not to say shtick) while pumping out great quantities of loud operatic sound. Not everybody will see this as a bad thing; in fact, it might be exactly what many opera-goers want.

I am a die-hard voice lover, and I'm all for focusing on the singing. The issue is -- and here is where my friend's question about direction comes into play -- that without emotion, character and drama, loud singing can be just a lot of noise. It has become a truism to say that singers of the old school couldn't act, but this is simply not true; on recordings you can hear that, however lumpy a Bergonzi or a Gigli may have been onstage, they sang with a sensitive understanding of their characters (Tito Gobbi's Rigoletto, anyone?). On Saturday, by contrast, Joseph Calleja, as the Duke, and Carlos Alvarez, as Rigoletto, offered impressive, sustained but rather undifferentiated swaths of sound, usually as loudly as possible.

Calleja is certainly a tenor to reckon with. His voice has a light lyric quality coupled with considerable size; a slight nasal cast, but colored throughout with flecks of burnished gold. But he was as careless with his music as the Duke is with his women, steamrolling over small but telling details in the score, approximating intonation (particularly in Act 1) and phrasing. His Act 2 aria, "Parmi veder," was doughty but not melting (his character has just learned that the current object of his affections, Gilda, has been abducted). When he found that Gilda was under his own roof, he went on to sing the crowing cabaletta, which is often cut. But the climax was not so much his concluding high note as his leap down from the table where he was standing (Malfitano's characters liked to be up high) as he ran off to consummate his passion.

Alvarez also has a lyric though full instrument: strong enough for Verdi roles, without the inky darkness of a Wagnerian. But his singing was often leathery in its tough, loud sameness (a quality compounded by a tic of aspirating audibly before vowels, so that many lines begin with a stage-whispered roar before the voice kicks in). Rigoletto is a difficult character because he is unsympathetic; Malfitano cast him as something of a brute, abusive and blind to anything but his overprotective love of his daughter Gilda. The trick is to find his inner vulnerability, something Alvarez failed to do in his utterly standard-issue first monologue. He did come into his own in his anguished Act 2 diatribe against the Duke's courtiers, when some pathos came into the loudness.

Lyubov Petrova, as Gilda, was the only one of the leads who seemed invested in what her character was feeling, although she was also the most subjected to production shtick. (After her first meeting with the disguised Duke, consumed with the raptures of innocent love, she went through several sequences of unconvincing stock gesture -- dance around the stage, splash in the fountain, caress the bench where her beloved was sitting -- before coming in on cue for her big aria, "Caro nome.") Her soprano is small, light and a little fluttery, a soubrette voice aiming for bigger territory. But although she was outscaled by most of the other singers onstage, she did not force her voice, offering a committed performance and some impressive interpolated high notes.

Two company debuts were worthy of note: Malgorzata Walewska as a strong, sonorous Maddalena, and Andrea Silvestrelli as a Sparafucile with perhaps the largest voice I have ever heard on an operatic stage. It is not a beautiful voice but a force of nature, issuing with the metallic resonance of someone singing into a trash can, rather rough in the details, but sweeping away everything else in its path (including the unfortunate Petrova in their last-act trio). Robert Cantrell's Monterone, by contrast, was far too slight, failing to make an impact in a role that, like the Commendatore in Mozart's "Don Giovanni," requires a singer to make an effect incommensurate with the amount of time he spends onstage.

The small roles in "Rigoletto" are a chance for a company to show off its young artists, and Yingxi Zhang, Claudia Huckle and Magdalena W¿r, in particular, came off very well. In the pit, Giovanni Reggioli supported the general tone of the evening by leading the orchestra obediently if not strikingly through the score.

You're left with glorious music, a cast able to sing the notes, and all the trappings of Mantua. What more do you want, and what more can interpretation do? Well, conceivably, it can elevate opera from pantomime to a kind of drama that can move us.

Of course opera is mainly about the music, and about the voice. But that music, those voices, are ideally about the expression of human feeling -- not just about getting through the score's hurdles, making an impact and collecting applause.

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