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TV/OPERA REVIEW : Sills & Co. Telecast Timid New ‘Rigoletto’

Times Music Critic

The New York City Opera used to be very proud of its quirky production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” That was the notorious Frank Corsaro version, first seen here in 1969. The titular jester turned out to be a chronic alcoholic who, mirrored by a dwarf-double, stalked a hideously ugly and illogical unit set by Lloyd Evans.

The decors, we learned via television this week, were destroyed a few years ago in a warehouse fire. Thank God for small favors.

Beverly Sills, the incipient ex-director of the company, took advantage of this incendiary stroke of fate to commission an all-new “Rigoletto.” New York saw it in July. Costa Mesa will see it in January. Public television beamed it to the nation Wednesday, “live” from Lincoln Center.

Tito Capobianco’s staging scheme avoids Corsaro’s excesses. The innovations here are timid and, for the most part, either dubious or silly.

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The first-act party is transformed, once again, into a dutiful mock-orgy, Verdi’s elegant music notwithstanding. Sparafucile returns to offer his devious services to Rigoletto after Gilda’s abduction, distorting the focus of the protagonist’s tragic grief. Gilda abandons Rigoletto and sprints back into the ducal bedchamber after the vengeance duet, thus making her re-appearance with dear old dad in the next act difficult to explain.

Otherwise, this “Rigoletto” looks pretty much like dull, hand-me-down “Rigolettos” everywhere. Capobianco was obviously less than inspired by this challenge. Carl Toms’ sets and costumes stress simple vulgarity or el-cheapo glitz or both.

A great cast and conductor still might have salvaged something here. Unfortunately, Sills & Co. mustered little beyond mediocrity.

In the pit, Elio Boncompagni stressed speed at the expense of lyrical expansion and dramatic impact. One had to wonder why his importation was deemed necessary when a talent such as Brian Salesky, who led a vastly superior “Rigoletto” with the company here in 1979, remains unemployed.

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In the title role, Brent Ellis looked unnecessarily grotesque. Rigoletto may be a hunchback but he need not be a gargoyle. The baritone acted sympathetically, however, and sang with such introspective finesse that one wanted to overlook his basic lack of vocal heft.

Although Richard Leech offered an appealingly boyish, open throated Duke of Mantua, there was nothing aristocratic about either his bearing or his singing. He won points for venturing both verses of the often-cut cabaletta, lost points for evading the high climax at the end.

Faith Esham looked glamorous--probably too glamorous--as the virginal Gilda and sang prettily when the line did not rise too high for comfort or accuracy. Susanne Marsee exulted in standard-vamp platitudes as Maddalena. Mark S. Doss introduced a reasonably dark and dangerous Sparafucile. The comprimarios varied from competent to merely eager.

The cameras neglected overviews, as usual. Laryngeal close-ups were the thing.

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The intermission features--breathless backstage tours and contrived chats between Sills and the principals--broke the Verdian mood and destroyed theatrical illusion. They did, however, offer two startling insights:

(1) Capobianco’s wife and directorial assistant has changed her name from Elena Denda to Gigi Elena. (2) Capobianco calls Sills “Bubeleh.”


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