By Elsa Tranter
Photos by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera
This summer’s San Francisco Opera’s “Rigoletto” is very much a family affair. The Duke of Mantua, played by New Zealand tenor Pene Pati is joined on stage, in smaller roles, by his wife, soprano Amina Edris and his brother, tenor Amitai Pati. All three are SF Opera Adler fellows. And when you include the title character, there are four cast members from islands of the Pacfic. That may be a record of some sort.
“Rigoletto” is a warhorse of an opera and has been performed in San Francisco 32 times before this summer. The set design by Michael Yeargen is in its fifth outing and while some may think it outdated or cardboard-like, it seems to work as a basic backdrop in its simplicity. The sets are based on the surrealistic paintings of the Italian Giorgio de Chirico and have an oddly unsettling off-kilter look to them. They are balanced well by the dark and rather elegant costumes by Constance Hoffman. Rigoletto stands out in his wildly colorful jester’s clothes, as well he should.
Hawaiian Baritone Quinn Kelsey plays the title role with great strength and a good mix of love (toward his daughter) and vengeance (toward society). His job as court jester is to castigate and make fun of the Duke’s enemies in the court. This of course makes him enemies and comes back to haunt him. In this production his hunchback is less noticeable, making him seem less scary and more humane. Quinn Kelsey’s voice modulates beautifully to express the different emotions necessary to tell his story. And his movements onstage, while less acrobatic than some, are effective in sustaining his character.
Soprano Nino Machaidze, who hails from Tbilisi, Georgia, makes her San Francisco debut in the role of Rigoletto’s young daughter, Gilda. She has a soaring voice and was most effective in portraying the young and naive girl; one longed to have her read the advice columns warning such girls about the ploys of charming Don Juans (but that’s an opera for another day!)
On to the Duke himself, Pene Pati. While his voice was equal to the challenge (though it wasn’t over large), he didn’t come across as the lothario that he was—he was static and a bit stiff onstage. Perhaps it was nerves (though this was the third performance); perhaps just youth. One hopes his acting skills will improve with time.
Mezzo-soprano Zanda Svede, a recent Adler fellow, was an excellent, sexy, Maddalena; Reginald Smith Jr. made an impressive debut as Count Monterone and SF opera regular Andrea Silvestrelli was an appropriately sinister Sparafucile. Smaller roles were sung, with vigor and appropriate acting skill, by the aforementioned Amitai Pati and Amina Edris, Anthony Reed and Andrew Manea (both current Adler fellows), and San Franciscochoristers Buffy Baggott, Erin Neff, and Jere Torkelsen.
The orchestra was ably conducted by SF opera's music director Nicola Luisotti and the chorus was expertly directed by Ian Robertson in singing and acting. They are so reliable—it’s great to be able to count on them to rise to whatever occasion is thrust upon them.
At the end of the opera, there is so much sympathy and sadness for Rigoletto; despite his meanness, his fate seems extremely harsh. That’s what makes this such a good, classic, and ultimately satisfying opera!
Four performances remain, all at 7:30 except for one: June 14, 18 (matinee), 22, 27, and July 1. For tickets, call or visit online www.sfopera.com
Elsa Tranter is a Bostonian who has lived in Berkeley for over 40 years and has been an opera goer for most of those years. She worked as a graduate student adviser at UC Berkeley and still attends Cal Performances regularly. Her favorite composer is Wagner and her favorite opera is Tristan und Isolde.