The Seattle Opera has been a lively oasis of culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1963. Founded by a glitzy visionary named Glynn Ross, it has been run, with bracing enterprise and tireless exuberance, by Speight Jenkins since 1983. Much admired, he retires at the end of this year, passing his torch to British stage director Aidan Lang, who has been running New Zealand Opera since 2006.
Meanwhile it is business more or less as usual at the lovely opera house rebuilt for the World’s Fair in 1962 (and significantly renovated since then). At the opening, not incidentally, Igor Stravinsky conducted and Van Cliburn played the piano.
Its latest offering is Rigoletto, resourcefully staged by Linda Brovsky and functionally designed by Robert Dahlstrom. Although Jenkins normally disdains theatrical experimentation, he did condone a bit of liberty here.
For some reason, Verdi’s Mantuan masterpiece has often invited re-interpretation. At English National Opera back in 1982, Jonathan Miller moved the tale to Little Italy in the 1950s, casting the dramatis personae as Manhattan Mafiosi. In 2005, Munich allowed Doris Dorrie to transport the plot to the planet of the apes. Really. The latest production at the Met, staged by Michael Mayer, imposes the clashing milieu of sleazy-jazzy Las Vegas. In this context, Brovsky’s decision to play Rigoletto in Mussolini’s Italy suggests just a gentle expressive nudge.
Still, it is not a nudge in a useful direction. Portraying the duke as a fascist bully, and his booted followers as pistol-packing thugs, hardly induces dramatic sympathy. Still, the Seattle crew tries hard to make a virtue of perversion. Francesco Demuro brings a sweet tenor with an arresting top extension to the tunes of the central capo. Nadine Sierra sings most of Gilda’s ascending phrases exquisitely. Andrea Silvestrelli booms deeply as Sparafucile. Unfortunately, Marco Vratogna as Rigoletto – here a bar-room flunky rather than a court jester – defines his daunting vocal challenge in terms of yell-canto. Riccardo Frizza enforces efficiency in the pit, but pauses indulgently for high-note extensions. Everyone – well, nearly everyone – seems grateful.