Directors love to tinker with the time period and setting of classic operas. Many of these versions are yawners — superficial attempts to slap a thin veneer of stylized costumes and sets on top of the same old storyline.
But some updatings breathe a sense of fire and vitality into a work. That’s the case with Fresno Grand Opera’s thoroughly smart and effective “Rigoletto,” which continues 2 p.m. Sunday at the Saroyan Theatre. Stage director Joseph Bascetta sets this beloved Verdi classic in 1940 Fascist Italy — a time saturated with a palpable excitement about impending conflict. (Whipping one’s self into a militaristic frenzy about going to war, with all the attendant pomp and swagger of anticipation, is inherently more satisfying than actually getting shot at.) Bascetta’s vision is bold and effective, and I consider it much more successful for the company than its initial venture in updating a title with “La Boheme.” The strong production design and towering performances by Gaetan Laperriere and Raul Melo, its two leading men, make this a memorable “Rigoletto” indeed.
In this Fascist version, the interior of the Duke’s “palace” becomes a kind of early modernist country club, with smatterings of neo-classical adornment (a nude Greek statue, a painting by David) interspersed with comfy leather furniture and a billiards table. The Duke (Melo) is a military officer, presumably in the service of Mussolini, and his “court” is decked out in costume designer Maribel Sorensen’s crisp period garb: sleek tuxedoes and medal-saturated uniforms for the men, elegant evening gowns for the ladies). His deformed “jester,” Rigoletto (Laperriere) is a buffoonish aide loathed by the rest of court. Though he’s traditionally depicted as a hunchback, Rigoletto in this version has a grotesque growth on his head (kudos to James Geier’s makeup design) that makes him an object of derision.
With its ruffled red elegance and stark, clean design, Bascetta’s period concept for the show — which was inspired by a recent Seattle Opera production — conveys a sense of icy, sinister opulence. (Tom Wolfgang’s lighting design is effectively crisp, and he pulls out all the stops for an impressive storm scene.) That coldness doesn’t overwhelm Verdi’s red-hot emotional intensity, however. As we meet Rigoletto’s beloved daughter, Gilda (Melanie Vaccari) and follow her tragic love affair with the philandering Duke, the age-old passions of the opera burst into flame right on schedule.
“Rigoletto” has to be one of the most misogynistic operas ever written, so it’s no surprise that the men in this production are so dominant. Laperriere and Melo were in fine voice opening night — with Laperriere wringing every emotional possibility out of his booming, lyric baritone instrument. Ashraf Sewailam’s Sparafucile was growlingly effective as the assassin, and I was impressed with the performances of Stefanos Koroneos as Count Monterone and Eric Dubin as Marullo.
But in terms of sheer, in-your-face testosterone, I was most wowed with the large male chorus overall. Bascetta molds them in this “Rigoletto” into a particularly sadistic and menacing group of individuals. This is where the Fascist setting works so well. There’s something about the communal swagger on stage, the idea that evil is fed by numbers, that really captures the fierceness of this opera’s tragedy.
Vaccari, as Gilda, seemed to be having an off-night vocally at times, though her acting was strong. There are times when Bascetta’s stage direction is exquisite, such as when Gilda slowly pulls on one sheer stocking at a time, her toes pointed like a ballerina, finding a delicacy of motion to match the frilliness of the vocals. Avis Ambrose had some nice moments as Giovanna, Gilda’s nurse, and Mary Ann Stewart’s randy Maddalena, the assassin’s sister, was strong.
Besides updating this “Rigoletto,” Bascetta’s other major innovation is covering the orchestra pit in the Saroyan Theatre and moving the musicians, conducted by John Massaro, behind a scrim at the back of the stage. I’m of two different minds about this move. On the positive side, it brings the performers much closer to the audience — which is perfect for intimate scenes. On the negative, I had some issues with the sound. Occasionally the chorus completely drowned out the orchestra. We also lost some of the “oomph” of some of the more dramatic parts of the score — such as when Monterone makes his ominous entrance, for example, and the orchestra sounded like a substantial but faraway train. (By the third act, my concerns were diminished — either the orchestra was louder, or I’d grown accustomed to the sound balance.) I also heard from several audience members during intermission about the brightness of the TV monitors that were needed to keep the singers and orchestras in sync.
Overall, however, I loved the gamble of the orchestral move — and the way that it made the production that much more intense. Perhaps the ultimate compliment to Bascetta’s artistic concept is that I found myself truly immersed in the updated time period — that it became an integral part of the story, not just a gimmick. It’s yet another milestone in Fresno Grand Opera history.