Superb `Rigoletto' returns

Music reviews

October 25, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Verdi's "Rigoletto" is an opera that turns on paradox.

Gilda, the heroine, is pure but throws her life away for romantic passion. Her seducer, the Duke of Mantua, is charming but also shallow, brutal and sexually predatory. Rigoletto, Gilda's father, the Duke's hunchbacked court jester and the central figure, is the greatest paradox of all. His spirit can be as ugly as his body is deformed, but he is also capable of great paternal tenderness. In creating such multifaceted examples of the mystery of human personality, Verdi reached a Shakespearean level.

With three such roles in a brilliantly plotted opera that contains some of the most affecting and inexorably tragic music ever written, it's scarcely surprising that "Rigoletto" has always attracted great singers and inspired memorable productions.

It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that the Washington Opera's current production of "Rigoletto" -- which opened Saturday night in the Opera House of the Kennedy Center -- is itself so memorable.

I don't remember a staging of "Rigoletto" more affecting than this revival of the company's 1983 production. It is beautifully sung and acted, powerfully played (by conductor Heinz Fricke and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra), brilliantly designed (Zack Brown's dazzling, Rembrandt-like chiaroscurist conception has been retained from the original 1983 staging), intelligently directed (by Marta Domingo) and intriguingly lighted (by Joan Sullivan-Genthe).

In this abundance of excellence, I will most remember Anna Netrebko's Gilda. This lovely Russian soprano, 28, has created a character -- a taut, virginal beauty, with an inner radiance born of innocence, love and fear -- that is near miraculous. The voice is a beautiful instrument -- fresh and warm-sounding, with a commanding range of colors. It is also used most intelligently. "Caro nome" is filled with yearning, without being distorted, and "Tutte le feste" is convincing. Her death scene was unforgettable -- with a fading, vanishing close in which her voice suggested not merely frailty, but death itself.

Despite having a small voice, Netrebko has a wonderful projection that compelled attention in her duets with the Duke and with her father and in the celebrated quartet of the final act. She was less successful with sustained forte high notes -- there were two or three instances in which she came dangerously close to sounding shrill. But if Netrebko takes good care of her voice -- and my guess is that she will -- we should be hearing great things from her for years to come.

In the title role, Haijing Fu managed to steer a middle course between vocal beauty and dramatic strength. He was alert to the nuances of the role, adjusting comfortably between the extremes of emotions, vocalizing beautifully and singing warmly without becoming lachrymose. The young Mexican tenor Jorge Lopez-Yanez was a fine Duke. Like many Spanish-speaking tenors, his voice had an attractive, almost baritonal, quality. He also possessed a good deal of elegance and flexibility, displaying a capacity for both anger and grace.

The Serbian mezzo-soprano, Svetlana Serdar, supplied an alluring Maddalena, Simone Alberghini a suitably tough Sparafucile and John Marcus Bindel a commanding Monterone.

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