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OPERA REVIEW : The Domingos Do ‘Rigoletto’ : Conductor Placido and director Marta fail to raise their glamorous operation above respectable routine.

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The wife also rises. After a while. After a fashion.

If all had gone as planned, the production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” presented by the Music Center Opera Saturday night would have been something new and bold. It was to have been staged, after all, by the British film director Peter Medak.

When he withdrew last year in order to complete work on a cinematic opus called “Romeo Is Bleeding,” the management decided to substitute a “Rigoletto” that would be old and cautious. Ultra-conventional picture-postcard decors designed by Zack Brown in 1983 were borrowed from Washington. For a replacement director, Peter Hemmings, our daring impresario, chose Marta Domingo and heralded her debut in the program magazine as “most welcome.”

The conductor, not incidentally, was Placido Domingo, officially listed as artistic consultant for the company. He would man the podium at least for the first three performances. The tenorissimo would be too busy, however, to undertake the full run.

The result of this nepotistic hand-me-down collaboration certainly did not suggest disgrace. The Domingos have been working and lurking around the world’s leading opera houses too long--nearly 30 years--to look like amateurs. That does not mean, however, that they could make their glamorous mom-and-pop operation rise above respectable routine.

With Placido beating time efficiently--well, pretty efficiently--in the pit and Marta directing traffic neatly--well, pretty neatly--on the stage, the Domingos turned “Rigoletto” into a triumph of enlightened mediocrity.

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Placido Domingo is not the first tenor to wield a baton. Richard Tauber, Julius Patzak and Peter Schreier set certain precedents. Domingo actually may be the world’s finest conductor who also happens to be a famous singer. Still, that doesn’t make him a particularly authoritative or interesting conductor.

On this occasion, he held things together decently, set reasonable tempos, accompanied attentively. He did little, unfortunately, to convey an overriding, propulsive sense of drama. And if he concerned himself with dynamic subtlety, either from the orchestra or from the cast, he kept his concern a secret.

Marta Domingo, who until now has avoided major opera-house exposure, does not appear to have many new ideas about the meaning of “Rigoletto.” Most of the new ideas that she did disclose seemed dubious at best. In the first scene, she allowed four ludicrously incongruous, frantically busy baby-ballerinas to clutter the action (the so-called choreography was attributed to Kenneth von Heidecke). Even worse, she literally served up Monterone’s nightgowned and disgraced daughter--usually heard about but not seen--on a silver platter. The symbolism was as obvious as it was fatuous.

Apparently having overcome her urge for innovation early in the narrative, the director spent the rest of the evening making the opera look pretty much as it looks in pretty, cliche-ridden productions from Aachen to Zwickau. She did choose to make the protagonist less grotesque than tradition dictates but, given the protagonist at her disposal, the impact of that innovation shook little earth.

The protagonist, of course, was Justino Diaz, the tenor-turned-conductor’s favorite bass-turned-baritone. He had never ventured Rigoletto before, and one could hear why.

Ideally, the role demands a big, juicy Verdi baritone--a Tibbett, Warren, or MacNeil--or, at the very least, a Gobbi, Merrill, Milnes or Cappuccilli. The breed, alas, is all but extinct.

Lacking ease in the high tessitura as well as sheer vocal amplitude, Diaz performed bravely and intelligently. But the strain showed.

Stentorian literally to a fault, he had to force his way through much of “Pari siamo” and came close to cracking at the climax. Under the circumstances, he no doubt was grateful for the drink instantly proferred by the accommodating maid Giovanna--who, according to the libretto, wasn’t even supposed to be onstage at this juncture.

Diaz looked more like Don Giovanni than a conventional hunchbacked jester. Rigoletto may lament his awful deformity (“Esser difforme!” he rages), but, as depicted here, his problem could easily have been solved by any half-decent tailor. A nearly debonair Rigoletto has to work hard to sustain the pathos so carefully delineated by the composer and librettist. Diaz never let us forget how hard he was working.

Hemmings & Co. did not exactly surround him with an ensemble of paragons. This seemed to be yet another demonstration of wishful thinking fused with cost-containment casting.

Richard Leech, the bright, boyish and inelegant Duke of Mantua, sang beautifully much of the time and loudly, for no good reason, all of the time. He ventured one verse of a rather sluggish “Possente amor,” but opted against the ascending cadence that could make the restoration exciting. (Domingo chose a slightly truncated, somewhat modified version of Ricordi’s new critical edition.)

Ann Panagulias, whose extraordinarily promising career seems to be moving faster than her technique should allow, looked enchanting as Gilda and sounded like a soprano in serious trouble. “Caro nome” emerged short-winded, chronically flat and weak both in top tones and trills. “Lassu in cielo” lacked pianissimo focus, not to mention legato phrasing. Sad.

Brian Matthews introduced a kindly Sparafucile--no menace here--ever happy to roll out a carpet of self-indulgent low notes. Michelle Henderson used Maddalena as an impressive audition for a provincial Carmen. Among the home-team comprimarios, John Atkins offered an incisive Marullo, Louis Lebherz a powerful Monterone (in spite of the silly staging), Marvellee Cariaga a sympathetic Giovanna, Richard Bernstein a properly brooding Ceprano and Greg Fedderly a Borsa oddly afflicted with an Adonis complex.

The enthusiastic first-nighters, dressed to the communal gills for a post-performance party, hummed along when they recognized “La donna e mobile.” They also clapped in most of the right places and, thanks to the supertitles, laughed in the wrong ones.


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