The young Russian soprano Anna Netrebko redeemed the Washington Opera's production of Verdi's "Rigoletto" on Saturday evening. Surrounded by grim staging with often indecipherable or contradictory blocking and character interaction, Netrebko carried the night at the Kennedy Center Opera House, singing with a radiant, precise voice and portraying the not-so-innocent virgin Gilda with simplicity and a convincing sense of sincerity.
Few sopranos can mitigate the absurdities of the opera--Gilda must sing her final farewell half-wrapped in a burlap sack--and even fewer can survive the opera with little or no assistance from the director. Netrebko, oddly costumed as if for a soubrette role in a comic opera, moved through the work without seeming to touch terra firma, gliding from one preposterous scene to the next while building slowly and movingly toward Gilda's tragic self-sacrifice.
That final moment, when Gilda pauses before opening a door that means death, contains all the frustrating elements that make "Rigoletto" the obvious case for arguing that opera is an absurd and irrational entertainment. A fateful decision is delayed throughout a glorious ensemble passage, the decision itself is motivated by an increasingly improbable string of small plot twists, and the characters each seem to be singing their inner thoughts not to the audience, but to one another.
Yet that scene is a stunning musical moment--with Netrebko comfortably overtopping the orchestra and vocalists--sufficient in its aural impact to keep the opera in the repertoire. Like Verdi's "Il Trovatore," his "Rigoletto" hints at a kind of believably tragic absurdism that the composer explored throughout most of his career ("Falstaff," "Otello" and "La Traviata" are notable exceptions).
This aesthetic prefigures one strain of operatic modernism, in which one or more of the usual elements of music drama--plot, character, stage design, music--can be willfully banished or made symbolic or abstract to heighten the impact of another element. "Rigoletto" is fundamentally a study in character, with the usual dramatic niceties (such as narrative coherence) subsumed into scenes that function like a series of scientific tests, sounding the depths of each individual in ever more extreme circumstances.
Yet it is also a warhorse opera that keeps the house filled, and opera companies are loath to rethink the piece into something minimalist or brutal or severely symbolic. Wiser, by far, to opt for the traditional, which is what director Marta Domingo strives for in her restaging of the Washington Opera's 1983 production.
Traditional can work, too, though building tragic momentum without producing giggles in the audience demands that traditionalists keep the action sharp, focused and inevitable. Domingo's work is too reliant on the stock cliches of operatic acting, the arm flung outward to suggest horror, comic mugging during happy crowd scenes, normal movement distilled into silent-film-style swaggers and struts. Yet even that can work, too, if the opera is intentionally staged as a throwback to early 20th-century melodrama.
What doesn't work, and never can, are the mistakes: lighting units visible from the auditorium, slow crowd exits including one that corresponds with the line "Someone's coming," a delay of Rigoletto's third-act entrance that creates an awkward pause in the middle of the act. The directorial additions to the drama, such as parading a recently raped young woman on a platter during the first-act court revels, raised eyebrows without prompting deeper reflection on the work.
The lighting, by Joan Sullivan-Genthe, left Gilda's entrance in darkness until a follow spot could catch her. Other cues seemed equally bizarre or hackneyed, such as the sudden isolation of Rigoletto and Gilda on a darkened stage at the close of Act 2.
The set designer was not listed in the production, although these are the same sets designed by Zack Brown for the original staging. They are impressive, especially in the scenes that transpire in the Duke of Mantua's court. Brown's removal from the program listing was at his own request, according to an opera spokeswoman.
Baritone Haijing Fu has built a significant reputation for his depiction of Rigoletto, though on Saturday it seemed outsized to the reality of his acting and singing. His voice can be woofy at times, and he has a habit of singing long lines without any rhetorical modulation, like someone who speaks in whole paragraphs without pauses. To create dramatic intensity, Fu also pushes the tone while sitting on a note, sometimes jarring his usually slightly flat voice into multiple interpretations of a single pitch.
Tenor Jorge Lopez-Yanez played the Duke of Mantua with a tenor voice that is attractive through its mid-range, though occasionally strangulated on top. His acting was mostly posing and big gestures, which failed to communicate the charm of his rakish but immoral character.
The orchestra and vocalists were led by Washington Opera Music Director Heinz Fricke. Except for some disagreements during stretto passages, the orchestra provided a solid ground for the music, and the chorus sang with good diction and attention to detail.
It was Netrebko and a handful of smaller characters (John Marcus Bindel's statuesque Monterone, Simone Alberghini's delightful mix of the sinister and businesslike as Sparafucile, and Svetlana Serdar's coquettish Maddalena) who brought true professionalism to the evening. Netrebko's voice is evenly produced, effortless, sharp and clear without any trace of Russian edginess, and is matched with a technique that loves every note precisely and fully in its proper length and dynamic range. Her pianissimos are thrilling, and her rapid passage work almost flawless.
The excellence of great singing actors like Netrebko immediately highlights the flaws all around them. Netrebko makes the evening worthwhile. One hopes it will inspire the opera company to clean up things dramatically and produce a vehicle worthy of her.