No other art form depicts love and tragedy with the same emotional intensity and powerful physical presence as opera — especially if you have the right singers.
Both L.A. Opera and Long Beach Opera had the right singers in place over the past weekend for the openings of two operas that each considered the vagaries of love as fatalistic parables. On Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, L.A. Opera presented director Mark Lamos’ staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s classic 1851 opera Rigoletto in a monumental production with a towering stage set and a full orchestra and chorus. Sunday afternoon at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro, Long Beach Opera offered a stripped-down but starkly inventive adaptation of The Love Potion, Swiss composer Frank Martin’s relatively overlooked 1941 version of the often-told tale of doomed lovers Tristan and Isolde.
“My voice will shake you like thunder,” Count Monterone (portrayed by bass-baritone Craig Colclough) declares as he places a curse on Rigoletto (strong baritone Juan Jésus Rodríguez), a court jester unhappily in the service of the Duke of Mantua (tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz), a notorious and self-centered philanderer. Rigoletto is an equal-opportunity offender, insulting both men after Monterone accuses the Duke of seducing the Count’s daughter. Rigoletto uses his verbal attacks to distract his fellow citizens in the Italian town from the fact that he also has a daughter, Gilda (soprano Lisette Oropesa), whom he zealously keeps hidden from the world by locking her up in their home.
But the real vocal thunder occurs later. Early on, the impressive chorus, led by director Grant Gershon, sometimes overwhelmed the lead vocalists, and there were times when conductor Matthew Aucoin favored the L.A. Opera Orchestra’s brass and percussion at the expense of the string section, until a fuller and more satisfying balance was achieved later. In addition to having affairs with half the married women in Mantua, the Duke is inevitably trying to seduce Gilda, and the opera really comes alive when the couple share their first poignant duet.
Chacón-Cruz and Oropesa are both veterans of L.A. Opera and were also paired as lovers in the company’s 2014 production of Florencia en el Amazonas. As the Duke, Chacón-Cruz has a robust, stirringly romantic voice and maintains a steady forcefulness throughout the opera, particularly during the opera’s most famous tune, “La donna è mobile.” (Even when he sings from offstage — one of L.A. Opera’s clever tricks in this and other productions is to occasionally place the vocalists backstage — he still sounds impressively powerful.)
Oropesa, who starred in L.A. Opera’s Orpheus & Eurydice in March, reveals a more subtly enchanting presence when she discloses her attraction for the Duke in a delicately eerie and movingly sublime version of the love song “Gualtier Maldè! … Caro nome.” Oropesa’s voice trails off with a sighing, spacey exoticism as Gilda revels in her desire for the Duke, in one of the opera’s most memorable scenes.
The more Rigoletto tries to shield his daughter from the Duke, the more she falls in love with him, and the jester’s desperate efforts to protect her instead turn tragic. As Sparafucile, the assassin Rigoletto hires to kill the Duke, bass vocalist Morris Robinson delivers a properly ominous tone that matches his character’s amorality.
The action occurs on set designer Michael Yeargan's sloping stage, which is bookended by gigantic arches and tall buildings that tilt to the side with a surreal, exaggerated lean. Robert Wierzel’s rich interplay of deep purple, violet and green lighting adds a colorful vibrancy that contrasts the sometimes morbid plot. Constance Hoffman’s period costumes are especially lavish, such as the dramatic purple full-length gown worn by Countess Ceprano (soprano Liv Redpath), which is adorned with feathers that sprout magnificently from the tops of her ornate sleeves.
Long Beach Opera’s presentation of The Love Potion (Le Vin Herbé) at the venerable Warner Grand Theatre is comparatively less of a visual spectacle, with the cast outfitted in anonymous black clothes as they move about a bare-bones set. But director and stage designer Andreas Mitisek imaginatively presents the story with simple yet effective images (a starry sky, the ocean, a forest) projected on a screen behind the performers, and the cast use long poles in unison as an almost architectural form of choreography that frames the actions onstage.
Mitisek, in his introduction to the audience before the performance, read aloud from a text that he claimed he received at the last minute from someone named Isolde. “Dear lovers of love stories, it gets complicated,” he read before closing with a prophetic warning: “And remember, watch what’s in your drink.”
The production starts with the black-clad chorus of 10 singers marching dramatically down the aisles of the theater, holding their poles aloft as if part of a pagan funeral procession. Throughout the opera, the chorus alternately manipulate the poles in unison as if they are oars or weapons. Conductor Ben Makino manages to get a warm, full sound from a seven-piece string section and pianist Neda St. Clair. Unlike other versions of this story, such as Richard Wagner’s expansive Tristan und Isolde, Martin’s The Love Potion is more minimalist and has occasional modern, avant-garde aspects. The rippling, folding waves of Martin’s music are broken up with arty spaces in a pleasing combination of sound and silence, highlighted by St. Clair’s knowingly timed and decisive piano accents. However, the English-language libretto is often awkward and stiff, with flat, unvarying rhythms and lyrics that are sometimes too needlessly expository and plain to match the melodicism inherent in Martin’s instrumental music.
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Isolde (soprano Jamie Chamberlin) and King Mark (baritone Bernardo Bermudez) are supposed to get married, but the king’s nephew, Tristan (tenor Bernard Holcomb), accidentally shares a magic potion with Isolde that causes them to fall madly in love. The mismatched lovers agonize over whether they should remain together or break up. Even after Isolde decides to return to King Mark, she and Tristan still desperately miss each other and attempt to reconcile one last time, before time and fate and mortality get in their way with a decisive finality. And yet, when the dead lovers are placed by the king in side-by-side tombs, a tendril grows out of Tristan’s corpse and reaches across the barriers to symbolically link the lovers in an eternal knot.
Holcomb has a lyrical, mellifluous tone that sometimes surges forward with impressive force. Adorned in a white lace shawl, Chamberlin, who was the most memorable part of Long Beach Opera’s presentation of Police drummer Stewart Copeland’s soggy and uninspiring The Invention of Morel back in March, skates softly along the somber edges of Martin’s string melodies with a nuanced grace. When the vocalists commiserate over “the pain of love” at the end, the opera closes with a hymnlike gentleness that’s unabashedly lovely.
Rigoletto continues at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; Sat., May 19, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., May 27 & June 3, 2 p.m.; Thu., May 31, 7:30 p.m.; $25-$350. (213) 972-0777, laopera.org. The Love Potion repeats at the Warner Grand Theatre, 478 W. Sixth St., San Pedro; Sat., May 19, 7:30 p.m.; $49-$150. (310) 548-7672, longbeachopera.org.