Times Music Critic

Ian D. Campbell, the cautious general director of the San Diego Opera, seems to have given up trying to serve gourmet fare. The repertory he has selected for 1987-88 is restricted exclusively to the bread and butter of "Rigoletto," "L'Elisir d'Amore," "Faust" and "Il Trovatore."

The "Rigoletto" production that opened the season amid considerable social brouhaha at the Civic Theatre on Saturday--Verdi's 174th birthday--could hardly be hailed as a musical or dramatic revelation.

It did suggest, however, that Campbell & Co. buy their bread in a good bakery and know how to butter it. After the tired and careless routine of the latest "Tosca" and "Barbiere" in bigger, older, richer San Francisco, one had to be grateful for large favors.

The current "Rigoletto," the third in the company's 22-year history, is a lend-lease item from Toronto. It is essentially traditional. It also turns out to be handsome and dramatically functional.

Lawrence Schafer has designed a series of flexible units that define both mood and locale effectively. Detailed Renaissance facades, walls, platforms and steps are set in various picturesque configurations against a brooding cyclorama sky. Jane Reisman has focused the drama in bold shafts of light and ominous shadows.

Robert Tannenbaum has defined the characters and propelled the action with fundamental urgency. Under the circumstances, one wanted to overlook a few expendable, vulgar inventions, such as the all-purpose bimbo in a mini-nightgown who lingers about the ducal palace, or the mini-striptease that the preening Duke performs during "Possente amor mi chiama."

Edoardo Muller conducted the opening performance with passion, verve, sensitivity, and a modicum of elegance, too. He allowed the coordination between stage and pit occasionally to go awry--some anxious moments marred "Caro nome"--and sanctioned some odd compromises between the new critical edition and traditional liberties. Still, this was authoritative, full-blooded Verdi conducting of the old, enlightened and endangered, school.

The cast was dominated, as all "Rigoletto" casts should be, by the singing actor in the title role. John Rawnsley of the English National Opera introduced a healthy, dark and incisive baritone that rode the mighty climaxes with glorious ease. Although the sound at his command is neither particularly sensuous nor strikingly resonant, it proved capable of poignant mezza voce effects and extended legato arches.

He conveyed first the cynicism of the jester, then the pathos of the betrayed father, with sure theatrical strokes and telling verbal inflection. Yet he never resorted to the usual exaggerations, never succumbed to the conventional distortions. He is, clearly, a thoughtful and resourceful artist.

Hei-Kyung Hong, a lovely young soprano born in Korea, sang and acted Gilda with uncommon purity and common sweetness. The staccati and stratospheric flights did not invariably dazzle--she all but came to grief at the interpolated climax of "Si, vendetta"--but she compensated with lyrical warmth and ardor.

Diego D'Auria, an Argentine tenorino who made his U.S. debut replacing Taro Ichihara as the Duke, looked and sounded like a nervous if promising novice. He conveyed little seductive charm as Mantua's leading libertine, tended to chop phrases into little pieces and encountered problems both with pitch and focus.

Nevertheless, he indicated an aptitude for aristocratic phrasing and a willingness to explore subtle dynamics. Perhaps with time. . . .

The assertive supporting cast included Stephen West (replacing Carlos Chausson) as an exceptionally vital, imposing Monterone; Jeffrey Wells as a strong Sparafucile compromised by weak low notes; and Suzanna Guzman as a properly earthy Maddalena.

Martha Jane Weaver's lush mezzo-soprano made much of the minor opportunity afforded Giovanna. Bernard Fitch's insolent Borsa, David Downing's sullen Ceprano and Harlan Foss' almost-amiable Marullo brought character to the Duke's often faceless retinue.

The ever-distracting supertitles malfunctioned on occasion, but at least managed to elude unintentional mirth.

The relatively short opera was performed, incidentally, with three long intermissions. That must be at least one too many.

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