Opera review: Los Angeles Opera’s ‘Rigoletto’


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Around midway through Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” an odious cuckolded count asks the hunchbacked court jester in Mantua, ‘What’s the news,’ as Los Angeles Opera translated the Italian on supertitles Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. ‘That you’re more annoying than ever,’ Rigoletto answers.

Rigoletto might well have been speaking of present-day Wall Street: the one about the trader who thought it amusing to hire a dwarf he could humiliate for a bachelor party prank.


This “Rigoletto” does not, though, need examine last week’s business pages. L.A. Opera tried something like that 10 years ago with a trivializing Hollywood update of “Rigoletto” and it flopped. This time around, the company, fiscally restrained from its “Ring” extravaganza, thought frugally. The production, new to the Music Center and directed by Mark Lamos, comes from San Francisco Opera, where it was first staged in 1997.

Michael Yeargan’s sets provide a spare, strongly colored, slightly Surrealist street scene, influenced no doubt by Giorgio de Chirico and enhanced by Constance Hoffman’s flamboyant period costumes and great masks. Mostly the staging serves as a blank slate. Plug in principals who can sing and act, and attention will turn to them. Each audience can supply its own contemporary context easily enough.

“Rigoletto” is meant to test our sympathies. Verdi entices us to shed a tear for a corrupted clown who belittles the misfortune of others, keeps his beloved daughter Gilda under lock and key and takes out a contract on his employer who has designs on Gilda. Rigoletto is as ugly on the inside as he is on the outside, observes L.A. Opera music director James Conlon on the company’s podcast. This protagonist inhabits an especially dark world. The Duke, whom he serves, is a ladies man. Gilda is pure. The magnetism of one for the other is obvious. There is a moment where it looks like the Duke could actually be transformed by her. But Rigoletto hires a killer, and Gilda sacrifices herself for the unknowing and uncaring Duke.

It is the audience’s job to somehow have to get beyond all that ugliness. But what is perhaps too little appreciated about such a potboiler is the importance of the pot. And the conductor stirs the pot.

Conlon, then, turned out to be this production’s star, creating a forbidding atmosphere and relentlessly driven drama. No baritone has ever made me sympathize with Rigoletto, but a few conductors have -– Tullio Serafin, Carlo Maria Giulini and now Conlon.

The pot Conlon stirred contains backstabbing party dances, in which the daggers were tiny, offbeat accents, barely noticed and judged with the finesse of an Alfred Hitchcock to keep a listener nervous. The creepiness of the backstreets and cafes as places of employment for hired killers and prostitutes was not a matter of carpentry and lights but orchestra-made. Gilda’s murder took place during a Saturday storm that was absolutely Hitchcockian.


George Gagnidze, a baritone from the Republic of Georgia, is a tough-guy Rigoletto: gruff, angry and scary. His party face is Zero Mostel; his killer face is Tony Soprano. He generated little warmth in the father-daughter duets, and raged like a deranged Lear. His Rigoletto is easily understood as a potent force of destructive nature.

Sarah Coburn, a straight-forward and confident Gilda, tossed around bright high notes in “Caro nome,” the well-known coloratura aria, with forthright care. Her flighty fast vibrato came and went, and when it went it left behind an impressive heroic ardor.

Gianluca Terranova -- who sang the Duke in a celebrated “Rigoletto” at La Scala in Milan in January, which Conlon conducted -- is a fresh tenor. His voice is tight but sure. The Duke is a likable cad. Terranova, showing off his talent with abandon, put his one dimension to good use.

Andrea Silvestrelli, as the assassin Sparafucile, rolled low notes across the stage like heavy balls. Sparafucile’s sister, Maddalena, is the lure, and Kendall Gladen was properly sultry.

The performance took time to settle down, the solo singers seemed to have trouble keeping up with Conlon’s exciting pace in the opening ballroom scene, in which Rigoletto taunts everyone in sight. But the chorus, which represents a society that deserves its Rigoletto, was sharp.

A successful “Rigoletto,” in fact, is not thinkable without a chorus and orchestra showing the way. The L.A. Opera chorus and orchestra, controlled by Conlon, showed the way.

-- Mark Swed

‘Rigoletto,’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 8, 11 and 15; 2 p.m. Sunday and Dec.18; $20-$270; (213) 972-8001 or Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

top, as Rigoletto in Los Angeles Opera’s new production at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; below, soprano Sarah Coburn and tenor Gianluca Terranova. Credit: Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times.