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OPERA REVIEW : An International ‘Rigoletto’ at Met

Times Music Critic

It was as if the United Nations had suddenly turned to Verdi.

The soprano was Korean. The tenor came from Japan. The mezzo-soprano was Romanian and the basso a German of Dutch extraction. Only the baritone happened to be a bona-fide Italian.

Nonetheless, everyone sang Italian, or a very reasonable facsimile thereof. Everyone understood the idiom, appreciated the style. This, after all, was “Rigoletto” at the Metropolitan Opera.

By the same odd token, it also turned out to be just another “Rigoletto.” Despite its multinational cast, this was essentially an exercise in enlightened routine. Opera is opera and, for better or worse, it is a remarkably democratic art.

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If the performance on Monday offered no revelations, at least it wasn’t boring. One can’t always make that claim when it comes to standard repertory excursions at Lincoln Center.

The production, which dates back to 1977, looks bizarre. The original director, now uncredited, was John Dexter. His successor, Lesley Koenig, keeps the traffic moving neatly and conventionally in and around the all-purpose, illogical set--a hideous revolving tower designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch.

When this “Rigoletto” was new, it was conducted by the lord of the Metropolitan manor, James Levine. Now it has fallen into the practiced but prosaic hands of Nello Santi.

He sanctions most of the time-dishonored cuts and climactic indulgences, sustains proper momentum, makes sure nothing goes drastically wrong. Under such doggedly traditional circumstances, unfortunately, little goes emphatically right.

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The Duke of Mantua was to have been Luis Lima, but the Argentine tenor has rather mysteriously withdrawn from all his commitments here. In his place, the Met drafted Taro Ichihara, born in Yamagata, trained in Siena and Rome as well as Tokyo. His only previous assignment with the company involved the fleeting duties of the Italian singer in “Der Rosenkavalier” three years ago.

Ichihara is no actor. He does little to convey the Duke’s ardor, his erotic charm or his callous egocentricity.

Technically, he must contend with problems that tighten his basically attractive tone under pressure. But this, without question, is an extraordinary voice--bright, clear, open, sensuous, capable of both fervor and suavity.

Although he flirts with danger when reaching for climactic high notes, he is capable of caressing the line with a perfectly gauged diminuendo. Not many tenors concern themselves with such niceties these days.

Hei-Kyung Hong, his lyrical Gilda, is remembered for a rather troubled performance in San Diego two years ago. This time she sang sweetly and confidently if wispily, looked very pretty, tended to confuse posing with acting.

Physically frail and vocally slender, Leo Nucci brought little heroic thunder to the title role. He did inflect the rhetoric with considerable pathos, however, and exhibited rudimentary bel-canto flair. Ironically, the supporting ensemble included a Monterone--Timothy Noble--who looked and sounded more like a Rigoletto than this Rigoletto.

Jan-Hendrik Rootering, the booming, black-voiced Sparafucile, proved once again that this secondary role can be a primary force when entrusted to a major artist. In contrast, Cleopatra Ciurca introduced a bland, standard-brand Maddalena.


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