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Monday, January 31, 2005

I've Got a Hunch I'm Gonna Be King

Because you can tell it's not gonna have a happy ending when the main guy is all bumpy.

A lateish entry on Lyric's Rigoletto. Late partly because an adventure with Kaga on Sunday night ate up free time and partly because I've been strangely unmotivated to write about it. Why unmotivated, I can't really say, because I certainly enjoyed the production. Maybe it's because I failed to read the pompous essay or any of the actor blurbs during the intermission or brief pause. (Hell, I didn't even read the synopsis until intermission). Those usually provide grist for the verbosity mill, so maybe that was my mistake.

However, I have to shamefacedly admit that part of the writing inertia is due to the fact that the plot really irks me. This is especially shameworthy, because L and I were having a discussion before the curtain went up about the fact that going to opera for the plot is a fool's errand.

But it's just so damned depressingly manly and reactionary. No real surprise there, I know, I know. It's 1851, it's opera, and it's based on Hugo. I wasn't exactly expecting The Second Sex going in. Nonetheless, I hate the overarching, "How would you feel if it was YOUR daughter/sister/wife"-ness of it all. And if you'll follow me a little bit further down this lunatic path for a moment, I hate that particularly because of some recent reruns of That 70s Show. (I now realize I could also fold in a good BSG rant on related topics, but I'll show unprecedented restraint and skip it. Largely because my next paragraph is an even more unforgiveable AND ANOTHER THING thing, so I'm buttering you up, gentle readers.)

(I could take another discursion and add that the only reason I've seen those is that I'm often on the elliptical machine at 1 AM, doing workouts that are now 10-15 minutes longer than the average Stargate episode because of an obsession with my weight, which has about 20% to do with concerns about being healthy and 80% to do with fucked up body images, but that really WOULD be digressing.)

Anyway, I trust that I'm not ruining anyone's day by revealing that in one of the later seasons, Kelso has a daughter. He realizes the manipulation potential of fatherhood pretty early on, and of course he uses it to get women into bed (because women have to be coaxed, coerced, or bamboozled, you see). But this backfires on him hilariously when the woman he's with says that his sweetness about the baby reminds her of her own father. Kelso makes the connection that every woman he loves and leaves is somebody's baby and wackiness ensues. Kelso's characteristically brilliant solution to the problem of never having sex again is to have a man-to-man talk with his target's father so that he can proceed with his skeevy plans with a light heart. The episode ends with a one-shot of Kelso talking into a doorway, putting the audience in the place of the woman's father, so we end up punching him by proxy. And it's funny. I laughed.

And Rigoletto is the flipside of that maddening "Would Braveheart let this happen to his daughter? Woud Payback?" issue. Gilda is so naive and shielded that she doesn't even really know what she's being shielded from. Rigoletto is literally driven mad by the fear that she will wind up a victim in his tawdry world, a world that he actively makes go 'round.

The Pompous Essay asserts that Gilda has been raped by the Duke just before her Lionel-Luthor- Patented-Double-Door-Entrance in Act II. But the rape itself is so irrelevant that it doesn't even make particular sense in the chronology. In Act II, scene i, the duke bemoans the fact that Gilda has been taken from him, only learning that she's actually in the palace at the end of his scene. In this production, the two scenes are absolutely continuous: the courtiers spill out into the street in front of the palace as the set revolves to hide the interior and bring the outside walls of the palace to the front.

So Gilda's rape is apparenty accomplished in the space of 60 lines or so of back-and-forth between Rigoletto and the Courtiers. And, for Rigoletto's part, it's a heart-breaking handful of minutes as he tries to resume his role as the cruel, sharp-witted jester, and eventually breaks down, pleading with and fawning over the ringleaders of Gilda's abduction. The ringleaders who, let's not forget, have mistaken Gilda for Rigoletto's young mistress. The musical moment when Rigoletto reveals that she's his daughter is so wonderfully crafted, I caught myself holding my breath, hoping against hope that this would shame the debauched lot of them but good. (Never mind that it should not matter whether she's daughter, mistress, or the girl who makes the tea, or even that she's a woman. She's a human being, abducted and raped, but "This time, it's personal," right?) And the subsequent fury? Don't even talk to me about the fury.

As for Gilda in this act---and please bear in mind that I knew both the story and the opera pretty well going in---not only is it not necessarily clear that she's been raped, I wasn't even sure what all the wailing or gnashing of teeth on her part was about. She tells her father that she's been betrayed, but if we scratch our heads and dismiss the possibility of an extremely quickie rape on the way from the dungeon to the front door, we don't know what she knows or what her experience has been in the hours since Rigoletto unwittingly assisted in her abduction. (And he's enlisted in that pretty easily, because it'sa married, rich woman, and no one we know. File under comedy fodder.) The point is, she's gotten a promotion from virginal, kitteny daughter to Maria Goretti since Act I. Her forgiveness and advocacy for the Duke are all that matters, regardless of what the Duke has done or not done, because they are yet more knives in Rigoletto's heart. Not only is he emasculated and proven to be unable to protect his property, he is abandoned as his daughter rejects him in favor of her lover-rapist.

Postopera, L commented that it's a shame that the Duke gets no comeuppance whatsoever. And it is. It's pure anguish when Rigoletto hears the Duke's drunken reprise of "La donna e mobile" wafting from the inn. And the final Rigoletto/Gilda duet? Heart-rending. I cried. (Well, I didn't really cry. I cry only sporadically [but copiously] at fiction, but it was a near thing.) But the near tears are for the very pointedly not dead Rigoletto, which is pretty fucked up right there.

So, apparently my brain is good and tired of women as sexless chattel, hymens awaiting rupture, and so much pointlessly self-sacrificing heart's blood on the floor. Fortunately or unfortunately, though, it kind of works for the rest of me as long as it's got a bitchin' baritone line. Ok, done ranting about plot and I promise never to do that again. Unless Orfeo, Der Rosenkavalier, or Carmen really gets my supportive opera undergarments in knot. Before moging on to the actual production, though, I leave you with this from the director's note: "The Duke's seductive exploits comprise a familiar tale, while the three women perhaps represent aspects of a female whole toward which one tends but never reaches. Whether saint or whore, there will always be a man of power ready to seduce, conquer, and dispose of his prey, regardless of whether that man is Nero or the Duke of Mantua."

The set was a giant frickin' revolve. Need I say more? Almost certainly not, but I will. Revolves are sweet. Revolves are sharks with frickin' laser beams on their heads. Revolves are a large part of the reason why no one lets Og design sets. As I told L, I'm all like, "I don't care if it's Beckett. This baby involves a revolve, or I walk!"

The Duke's rooms occupied about 100-120 degrees of the revolve, leaving plenty of room for courtiers, courtesans, new victims, and old victims to keep cycling through, as well as affording enough wall space that the giant Renaissance mural doesn't look silly. Interesting and enlightenining note from Robert Innes Hopkins, the set designer, "There are two sides here: the concave---the Duke's private, closeted world, all secure and exclusive---and when you rotate that, the convex side, where the outsiders live."

I take his point on concavity vs. convexity, but the furnishing of the Duke's set (or lack thereof) in conjunction with the staging of the performers in Act I, scene i, gives much more a feeling of an almost theatrically open space, which is appropriate, of course. The only furniture is a smallish four-poster bed up right on which Montereone's unnamed, nonspeaking, nonsinging, uncredited (my outraged feminist principles try once again to seize the keyboard) daughter is continuously fetishized by several characters in rapid succession. (I swear, there was an AWFUL lot of instep licking in this production.) Don't get me wrong, this works. It sets up the Duke and his court as a writhing hive of depravity in which it's difficult to pick out individuals. But private and closeted? I didn't really get that.

The street between the Palace and Chez Rigoletto was a narrow (probably < 40 degrees), darkened wedge of the revolve that did quite effectively convey how forgotten a place Mantua is outside the bright, artificial world of the court. Rigoletto's Monk-like ruminations on the curse took place near the apron under the benefit of a spot, throwing the upstage portions of the set into grim shadow, which made Sparafucile's entrance from the pitch black of a filthy doorway quite effectively chilling.

A funny aside on that moment: Our Sparafucile was Andrea Silvestrelli, whom we've seen before in several Lyric productions. Mozart probably didn't know this, being long dead when Silvestrelli was born, but he wrote the Commendatore in Don Giovanni so that Silvestrelli could sing it one day. So anyway, Sprarafucile sings his first line, and the entire house shakes and for a split second, we both thought in horror: Do they have him miked? No. He's just. that. resonant. Put him in a tiny space with flying buttresses on either side and----Mufasa! Ooooooooh!.

Silvestrelli's considerable assets aside, this was really a tiny, but effective moment of theatre. The lighting is designed to keep focus on Rigoletto, pulling the audience well and truly into his moment. Add to this the blocking and timing of the moment when Sparafucile intrudes and we have the sense that the soliloquy has already concluded in privacy. Sparafucile hasn't necessarily overheard Rigoletto's paranoid ramblings, it's simply a good business bet that Rigoletto, like every man in Mantua, will be in need of a hired sword before long. All in all, it's a well-crafted bit scene and an important nadir between the garish court and the clean, well-lighted space of Rigoletto's home.

Speaking of which, that's another well done set. Its walls are formed by the flying buttresses of the Duke's Palace, and it's quite pointedly homey in a Unabomber sort of way. The walls are clearly old and the plaster's a bit worse for wear, but clean scrubbed. There's a very simple, pointedly single bed, complete with hospital corners downstage right. Upstage left is a rickety table with the feminine touch of a crocheted cloth that has a single chair set at it. The other chair is set on the other side of the doorway to the interior of the house, just upstage of the bed, sending the message there's very little to go around in this house.

It's the perfect picture of a poor but proud and determinedly cheerful household, just slightly askew. When the would be lovers have their requisite attenuated goodbye scene, they chirp endearments through the lone, barred, window. This jarringly reminds us that the Duke is lingering just steps from where his assassination was plotted, and it's through the same bars that the courtiers will spy the besotted Gilda just before her abduction.

The exterior of the Duke's Palace for Act II uses the convexity of that section of the revolve to best effect. The lighting for the stone facade is above sight lines and quite stark, which gives a disorienting feeling of being simultaneously inside a prison yard at night and yet quite firmly outside a fortress of the rich and famous.

Maddalena and Sparafucile's inn in Act III is the seedy fun-house mirror image of Rigoletto and Gilda's home. Where the happy home is deep and narrow (but in a cozy kind of way), the inn is quite broad and shallow, forcing the action closer to the apron and the audience. A string of filthy laundry hangs across the back wall and the table and platform of dirty hay bales to serve as a bed (evocative of, if not identical to, the same items in the house) are placed haphazardly within the room. (And, as it turns out, both table and hay are simply convenient staging platforms for Maddalena's "dancing.")

Costume-wise things were generally full of lush, Renaissancey goodness. Jane Greenwood seems to have been particularly proud of her weirdly asexual pointy-haired courtesans. They were paraded through the Duke's chambers at least two or three times and ended up doing not much. (Actually, there are some nice shots of many of the costumes on the website.) The rich russet color of Gilda's pinafore (and the comparative restraint of her blissfully un-Opheliaed nightdress) were a quiet little pair of successes. I cannot say enough in praise of the Duke's series of pants (more below), which seem to have been stolen from Dandini's "Prince for a Day" wardrobe. I thought Rigoletto's jester costume was a bit disappointingly minimalist (and understated on the hump front, though I laughed when Alvarez patted it during his bows), especially since the website has a picture of Alvarez in some other production complete with fabulous makeup and a suitably garish costume.

All of the performers were vocally outstanding, but it's also worth mentioning that there was some genuinely fine acting in this production as well. As Rigoletto, Carlos Alvarez's performance was sprinkled liberally with some adept mimickry of other characters, as befits the court's jester. One is tempted to attribute the success of Frank Lopardo's swaggering performance of the Duke to his ridiculously puffy and garish pants, but I'll be generous and assume that their very puffyness is attributable to a thespian bursting forth from his crotch. Beth Clayton's Maddalena was so sinuous and trashy that I have to assume that she studied Dina Kuznetsova's charming, bright-faced Gilda well and built her character as the goateed AU Gilda to match.

We'd seen Kuznetsova as The Cunning Little Vixen last season and L and I agreed at the intermission after Act I that her voice was better than we'd remembered it. She was a bit shaky near the beginning of her first duet with Rigoletto ("Figlia! Mio Padre!" what a bitch of an entrance to make), but by the time she hit "Caro nome" near the end of the act, I was a believer. Even in her moments that were a mite technically off, she just exuded charm and the invincibility of youth, so at no point did I find myself cringing in anticipation of the next tricky spot. She simply believed she'd get there and she did. By Act III, no one would have dreamed of calling her inexperienced or her work in the quartet and "Lassu in cielo" (at least the parts I could hear over FUCKING VELCRO MAN across the aisle) as anything less than gorgeous.

Although I admired Clayton's characterization as Maddalena, her voice was a bit underpowered in the opening of Act II. Then again, when you're being blasted by the Commendatore, I guess most people wold sound underpowered. By the time of the quartet, though, she had all the kinks worked out (uh, so to speak), leaving us with a thing of beauty.

I've got no beef with Lopardo's Mantua, although I found the ebb and flow of his role somewhat wearing. It's not his fault, really. There he is singing one of the most recognizable tenor roles in one of the most well-loved operas ever. There's bound to be a little pose-striking, high-note milking, and holding for applause. And, of course, no one in the snooty blue-haired audience can wait until the music freaking FINISHES before they applaud.

What can I say about Alvarez's Rigoletto? It was beautifully done from start to finish. It's a moving role both on the staff and in the libretto, but he took it to even greater emotional heights, the bastard. This is ironic not only because of my "I don't want to be moved by this hackneyed, fucked up bullshit!" schizophrenia, but also because of yet another ironic intraopera conversation about Verdi as low-risk, formally beautiful entertainment versus the higher risk, visceral impact of other composers. Alvarez was dancing on my viscera. Repeatedly. Bitch.

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