My second night at the Santa Fe Opera was a fine experience: Verdi's Rigoletto tends to bring out the best in most productions. And as with other highly popular operas, it can withstand crazy ideas for new productions, not that that was what happened here. I forced myself to remember that summer opera--even at its most renowned venues like this one--is a chance to test out old and new operas that lack the popularity of Rigoletto, as well as singers who are on the way up.
The combination of Georgia Jarman as Gilda and Quinn Kelsey as Rigoletto was magical; they clicked as a classic Verdian father-daughter duo. Brian Sledge was a respectable Duke, not that this isn't the most sordid tenor role, since he is thoroughly awful and gets away with everything. His penalty, I suggest, was the tepid round of applause following his rendition of La Donna e mobile, the opera's most famous aria and probably one of the two or three most famous numbers in opera. It made me recall how Pavarotti attracted exultation by holding that final note of the song for what seemed an interminable time.
Kelsey had a fine rich baritone but while he was wonderful for much of the opera, I thought he disappeared in the famous last-act quartet. Jarman is a comer--she shone in caro nome's coloratura and trills as well as in the taxing final-act music for Gilda. Peixer Chen was a memorable Sparafucile, especially for holding the last low note when he repeats his name to Rigoletto while, in this production, he walks across the stage much as the legendary Rosa Ponselle was known to do.
Rigoletto is a wrenching tragedy. When well done, the characters reach your inner self and you feel for them, well, for Rigoletto and Gilda, anyway. Rigoletto is truly a fool, in life as in his profession of jester. But you see more beneath his surface than in the most celebrated operatic clown, Canio in Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci. You also feel deep pangs of grief for Gilda's loss of both innocence and life. And you are revulsed by the "vile race of courtiers".
Mostly, though, you are overwhelmed by Verdi's seemingly endless flow of melody and every form of operatic singing: aria, cabaletta, quartet, trio, duet. From the opening questa o quella to the quartet, bella figure del amore, and in between, my own favorite, the Rigoletto-Gilda duet at the end of the penultimate act, the music flows with genius and brilliance.