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Faceless Defacement

The greatest of the romantic operas -- the panoramas of lovehate, deceptionredemption, hearts broken and hearts aflame that drew the sellout crowds in Verdi’s time and sent them home singing the tunes -- gleaned their life force from one basic plotline, the ages-old struggle between love and conscience. The slavey Aida casts goo-goo eyes at the warrior-general sworn to eliminate her father and his people. Spain‘s Queen Elizabeth struggles against the hots for her former lover, Don Carlos, who has now become her stepson. The jester Rigoletto collects his paycheck from the aristocratic philanderer he both abets and loathes. Time and place -- plus considerable help from their music -- make these conflicts plausible, so that in worthy performances we find ourselves sharing the very breaths of the stricken heroes and heroines.

We are separated from the Mantua of Verdi’s Rigoletto by hundreds of years; Bruce Beresford, in his first directing stint on the Los Angeles Opera‘s stage, may imagine that by transporting its characters and story to the contemporary fairyland of Hollywood’s movie industry he has brought the opera closer to today‘s audiences. He has actually done just the opposite. His recent interview in the Orange County Register reveals, probably more clearly than he intended, the fallacy behind his approach. “If you presented the same films to the public year after year, you’d soon be out of business. But the same operas keep getting produced . . . and directors feel obliged to reinterpret them somewhat.”

Therewith, the difference between the John Wayne rerun and the lasting majesty of Verdi, and between the couch potato and the opera-goer who realizes that the commanding passions in past masterpieces, when respectfully revived, will always have something new to reveal. “Bruce Beresford Transforms Verdi‘s Rigoletto” screams a headline in the program book, but the baloney he has created is an insult to the opera itself and to its potential audience. He asks us to accept as an act of responsible transformation the notion that partygoers at one of the Duke of Mantua’s (excuse me, “Duke Mantua”‘s) bashes will drop everything (Armani-designed pants included) to the strains of a sweet Verdian minuet; that calling the paid assassin Sparafucile a “stuntman” actually makes him one (although he performs no stunts and does commit a murder for hire); that even though the title character laments his life as jester and procurer, true to Verdi’s text, the scenario lists him as “an agent,” assuming that this will strengthen the bond between him and us yahoos out front.

Don‘t take this as a blanket dismissal of the practice of operatic updating. In 1984 the English National Opera brought over its English-language Rigoletto -- first to Texas, later to New York -- for which Jonathan Miller had devised a setting among Manhattan mafiosi that had the consistency that the Beresford version lacks. (Mark Elder was the conductor, by the way; more about him later.) Peter Sellars relocated Don Giovanni in a New York slum, and translated convincingly into contemporary visuals the impact that opera must have had on its first audiences. Both attempts damaged the works and betrayed their pristine creative impulse, but there were minds at work that had probed the vital juices in the original scores and reacted intelligently to those findings. I see no such quality in the mindless tinkering currently (through this weekend) on display at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

What joy this Rigoletto affords rings clear and beautiful in the ear, even through Richard Hickox’s workaday conducting: the crystalline beauty of Inva Mula‘s Gilda (including a moment of sheer enchantment as she acted out her newfound infatuation, just before her gorgeously sung “Caro nome,” with sweet little girlish steps), the decent clarity of Frank Lopardo’s Duke, the occasional strengths -- in between some disconcerting slips -- of Haijing Fu‘s Rigoletto.

This wasn’t the only Rigoletto in town of late; on a recent Sunday afternoon I joined some 300 aficionados at the Casa Italiana (on Broadway just north of Chinatown) for a sensual reward that included a hi-cal sit-down dinner, raffles and door prizes (with impresario Mario Leonetti peddling tapes of his own singing, circa 1970) and, finally, something that called itself Rigoletto and occasionally came close. Maybe the opera can be sung and played more opulently; maybe a few more rehearsals and a few more strings in the orchestra could have pulled the enterprise back from constantly looming chaos. I have the feeling, however, that for every overpriced production at Rome or La Scala, there are dozens like this one across the Italian landscape, preserving their country‘s great lyric heritage as a sing-along folk art. You go for the pleasure of being part of a genuinely happy crowd, and every so often something else emerges, like a nightingale in the hen house, to make the trip even more worthwhile. The Duke in this mostly shreds-and-patches Rigoletto was a young tenor of elegant voice and superior musical sense with the unfortunate name of Donald Squillace (look it up). His remarkable performance included -- for the first time in my experience -- both stanzas of the murderous Act 2 cabaletta “Possente amor,” which most companies either omit altogether or cut in half.

Next: La Gioconda, June 4.

By one of those coincidences that defy explaining, another Verdi masterwork was in town that week, the Requiem, in a performance beautifully conceived and controlled in all but one respect under Mark Elder’s vibrant leadership, with the Master Chorale getting the words out with more than their usual proficiency and the Philharmonic -- its strings properly seated for once (fiddles down front) -- depicting the flames of Verdi‘s inferno burning high and bright. Three of the vocal soloists performed with zeal, brilliance of voice and intelligence of spirit: Metropolitan Opera mezzo Stephanie Blythe, tenor Marcello Giordani (the L.A. Opera’s splendid recent Faust) and Denis Sedov, new to these ears, an astounding 7-foot-or-so Russian bass.

The fourth, alas, was the soprano Alessandra Marc, beloved sacred monster to an addlepated few, enigma to the rest, who howled and screeched her glorious music, violated any sense of ensemble with the other singers and, near the end, belted out, fortissimo, squillace, the pianissimo, diminuendo high B-flat that should float like a final benediction over the 85 minutes of hair-raising drama that Verdi has unfurled into our welcoming ears. By what standard can such brainless performance values claim a place in the firmament of lyric art? (I‘m told Marc had not sung out at all during rehearsals, so that her antics must have shocked the conductor no less than the rest of us.) Did she entertain the barest conjecture of where she was that night, or what singing?

I rushed home and dug out my treasured GiuliniSchwarzkopf to reassure my offended ears. Eventually, sanity returned.


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