Review: A Tale of Two Operas—’Don Giovanni’ (**1/2) and ‘Rigoletto’ (****)

by Charles Kruger

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

It was the best of times and the worst of times last week, as we attended two revivals at the San Francisco Opera: “Rigoletto” and “Don Giovanni.” The experience was a lesson in what can go right and wrong with a revival.

Ideally, a revival should capture the best aspects of the original production, and, with the perspective of time and reconsideration, deepen one’s appreciation of both the production and the opera. Unfortunately, it is also possible for a revival to be tired and come off as merely an empty shell of a performance. As revivals go, “Rigoletto” approaches the ideal, but “Don Giovanni” falls short.

Let’s talk about the Don first, and get that out of the way. This production is described not so much as a revival but a “reboot” of the 2011 production, which was directed by Gabariele Lavia.  Jacopo Spirei’s direction of this reboot  is confusing, at best. The stage and singers are dominated by hanging mirrors. Occasionally, various ghostly images appear in the glass, without enlightening the action. They also distract from the music, which, in this case, may not be such a bad thing.

In spite of a beautifully performed overture, subsequent unmotivated dynamic changes and inconsistent tempi seemed to confuse the singers.

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo stars as Don Giovanni. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

To be fair, the production has been hampered by bad luck: on opening night, Don Giovanni (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo) admitted to feeling ill, although he went on with the performance. I saw him several nights later, and it is possible he was still struggling.. Although there were flashes of brilliance that reflected his sterling reputation in the role, they were not consistent. Additionally, the casting of Leporello was changed only just before the opening.

All of this suggests the possibility of a “cursed” production. Alas, these difficulties added up to a less than satisfying performance and the less said the better, although I should mention that several of the singers, most notably Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Don Ottavio, soldiered gamely on. In fact, de Barbeyrac, making his San Francisco opera debut, appeared to be playing in a much happier production, and we hope to see more of him soon and under better circumstances. Michael Sumuel performed with his usual excellence as Masetto, and Donnas Anna and Elvira (Erin Wall and Anna María  Martínez, respectively) sing well. The overall effect, alas, is underwhelming.

Quinn Kelsey stars as Rigoletto at the SF Opera. Photo Credit: Corey Weaver.

“Rigoletto,” however, was magnificent.  There is nothing stale about this revival, least of all Quinn Kelsey in the title role.  This 1997 production is brilliantly designed by Michael Yeargan, inspired by the art of Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico. The set evoked a feeling of impending doom, perfectly suited to Verdi’s masterpiece. Utilizing skewed perspective and buildings that lean towards one another, Yeargan’s design strikes a visual note that echoes the famously ominous opening chords of the opera. From the beginning, the audience knows we are in good hands with this production, and things only get better.

The chorus performs beautifully with no wasted wandering about the stage. Every moment compels and moves the story forward with a sense of inevitability. Speaking of the chorus, this is the moment to compliment the work of costume designer Constance Hoffman, whose carnival inspired outfits are a delight. The contrast between the grim story and the carnival costumes is one of many subtle elements that make this performance a memorable encounter with genius.

Quinn Kelsey is justifiably famous for his Rigoletto, and it is difficult to imagine we are seeing and hearing him at anything but the height of his powers. As Gilda, Nino Machaidze handles the bel canto line beautifully, never forced, and with a full characterization that makes her a believable and complex woman, not merely a pawn of the men who try to own and control her.

Second year Adler Fellow Pene Pati debuted with San Francisco only last summer, and now returns to sing the Duke of Mantua, one of  the most famous tenor parts in the entire repertoire, matched with one of this decade’s most famous Rigolettos. Was the company mad to cast an artist who could be described as “still emerging?” No, sir. Not mad, but more likely prescient. Pene Pati is a big man with a big talent who will make a big splash in the opera world. Remember the name!

Speaking of Adler Fellows, this production has no fewer than five current ones in named roles. They are all outstanding.

I can’t end without mentioning the performances of Andrea Silvetrelli and  Zanda Švēde as the murderous Sparafucile and his sister, a family constellation with all the charm of the Macbeths. They are both superb.

So, a tale of two operas: “Don Giovanni,”  a not very lively revival/reboot which carries a whiff of formaldehyde, and “Rigoletto,” which is everything one could ask of grand opera.

And that’s opera for  you: like the girl with the curl, when it’s good, it’s very, very good.

“Don Giovanni” and “Rigoletto” will play on various dates through July 1st at the War Memorial Opera House. For further information, click here.

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Ratings: Don Giovanni **1/2. Rigoletto: *****.
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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