Los Angeles Opera hasn't had a lot of luck with "Rigoletto," which returned to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage Saturday night. The company's first attempt was in 1993. Hoping for Hollywood magic, it hired film director Peter Medak, who dropped out when a feature, "Romeo Is Bleeding," came calling.
Since Plácido Domingo was the conductor, the easy fix became to import a production from Washington, D.C., by his wife, Marta. The cast was not notable. The result was, wrote Martin Bernheimer in these pages, "a triumph of enlightened mediocrity."
Seven years later, the company tried with another filmmaker, Bruce Beresford. The Australian director set Verdi's startling drama about a hunchback court jester who arranges to kill his boss (the Duke having raped his daughter) among Beverly Hills celebrity and seedy Venice Beach. Armani designed the costumes. Cast and conductor were unimpressive. It was a triumph of prescient mediocrity, given what we have since learned about a certain class of Hollywood mogul.
By fall 2010, the company having spent all its resources on its most extravagant undertaking, that summer's strikingly inventive version of Wagner's "Ring" cycle, tightened its belt financially and creatively. "Rigoletto" was relegated to an old San Francisco Opera production that company had tired of years earlier. Again, not much of a cast, but vital, enlightened conducting by James Conlon saved what could have been another mediocre day.
Here we go again.
That San Francisco "Rigoletto," with its Di Chirico-like sets, commedia dell'arte courtier costumes and masks, oversaturated lighting (all of which look as dated as the 1990s wide lapels) is back to end the season of the company's main stage offerings. A famed Rigoletto was, this time, to have been the attraction, but 76-year-old Italian baritone Leo Nucci decided to curtail performances outside Europe.
With Conlon off in Rome conducting Deborah Warner's award-winning production of Benjamin Britten's "Billy Budd," what L.A. Opera has chosen to promote in its advertising is the young composer Matthew Aucoin as the new "Rigoletto" conductor. He has not been much visible in this, his second season as the company's artist in residence, but later this month, L.A. Opera will also be presenting a concert performance at the Wallis of Aucoin's highly acclaimed chamber opera, "Crossing," about Walt Whitman.
In his pre-performance talk, Aucoin noted how much he was taken with what had been Verdi's breakout opera. Verdi invigorated the conventions of bel canto with compelling characters, refusing to compromise with what is dramatically crucial yet readily adapting to what is necessary practically to get the opera staged. A young opera composer himself, with commissions from both L.A. Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, Aucoin is clearly paying attention.
He is also a former Dudamel fellow at the Los Angeles Philharmonic who is building a conducting career. But in his one previous major L.A. Opera assignment, Aucoin led an enthusiastically unsteady performance of Philip Glass' "Akhnaten" last season. The enthusiasm was there Saturday as well, but tempered. This time, Aucoin brought intriguing experimentation to "Rigoletto," testing what works and what doesn't.
Not all did work. He chose very fast tempos when just fast might have had greater effect. He could be too loud, practically drowning out the singers, or keep the orchestra too much in the background. Details could come in and out of focus in funny, but also revealing, ways.
But mainly what Aucoin brought was a sense that this opera, so easily turned into cliché, its tunes and troubles so readily familiar, has quirks well worth examining in a 21st century light. In his search for what may be of use to him as an opera composer, Aucoin reveals what may be of relevance to us in our time. It was precisely those qualities that made Italian composers Bruno Maderna and Giuseppe Sinopoli unique opera conductors.
Aucoin has at his disposal an agile cast of four very different sorts of singers. If Lisette Oropesa seemed onstage at first a somewhat bland Gilda, the jester's daughter, "Rigoletto" director Mark Lamos may have had something to do with that, given that the soprano was notably lively in L.A. Opera's exhilarating choreographed production of Gluck's "Orpheus and Eurydice" two months earlier. Once her initial flighty vibrato settled down, she brought a golden honeyed tone, a little reminiscent of Beverly Sills, to Verdi's great coloratura aria "Caro Nome" at the end of the first act and vocally remained the stunning star of the show from then on.
Veteran Spanish baritone Juan Jesús Rodríguez came across as a more suave than tortured Rigoletto. Arturo Chacón-Cruz hammed it up as the Duke, small in voice at first, saving himself for an adamant last act. Morris Robinson made a properly threatening Sparafucile, the assassin for hire with the faint resemblance of a heart. Ginger Costa-Jackson's Maddalena, the latter character's sexy sister, had all the sultry qualities she has displayed in "Carmen."
But little in the production took theatrically. Onstage, the singers appeared to do their individual thing (the same was true last time around and probably was true in the 1940s and 1950s, when San Francisco brought productions to the Shrine Auditorium on practically a yearly basis, often with legendary singers).
But musically, they did Aucoin's interesting thing, including spectacularly maneuvering through those breathtakingly speedy cabalettas. Should we read anything into the fact that no one from the production team was brought onstage to take a bow during the curtain call, which is customary for the first night of any production, old or new?
All three principals change for the last three performances of the run, which is one way to keep this "Rigoletto" on its toes.
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Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and May 31; 2 p.m. May 27 and June 3
Cost: $44-$354 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 972-8001 or LAOpera.org
Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes