San Francisco Opera’s summer season opens at the War Memorial Opera House this week – a season featuring Verdi’s Rigoletto, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Puccini’s La Bohème. Coinciding with celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of San Francisco’s Summer of Love, each of these works has a different take on the subject of love which – as we know – can manifest itself in many different ways.
The opening production is director Rob Kearley’s revival of Rigoletto, the tragic tale of a father’s attempts to save his beloved daughter from a disastrous relationship, a daughter who sacrifices everything by succumbing to the allure of a fascinating stranger, and a lecherous duke who’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants.
Rigoletto has a special place in the history of San Francisco Opera. It was performed during the Company’s inaugural season in 1923, conducted by founder Gaetano Merola, with baritone Guiseppe De Lluca as Rigoletto, tenor Beniamino Gigli as the Duke and soprano Queena Mario as Gilda.
Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey – a graduate of San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program – sings the title role, Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze – in her Company debut – is his daughter Gilda, and New Zealand tenor Pene Pati – a current San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow – makes his role debut as the Duke of Mantua.
Rigoletto, one of the world’s most popular operas, has a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, and was based on Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse. It was first performed at La Fenice in Venice on March 11, 1851, with the title La maledizione (The Curse). It was so named because of a curse placed on both the Duke of Mantua and Rigoletto – his hunch-backed jester – by a nobleman, Monterone, in wrathful revenge after his daughter had been seduced by the Duke who was aided and abetted by Rigoletto.
Rigoletto, though, has his own daughter, Gilda, whom he tries to keep hidden from the court, but the Duke and Gilda eventually meet – he vows to have his way with her, and she – being completely smitten with him – puts up no objections. Rigoletto ultimately finds out about this relationship, and – haunted by Monterone’s curse – plots to have the Duke murdered by Sparafucile, a local innkeeper who offers to do the dirty deed for him. Unfortunately for Rigoletto – who has spent his life manipulating others and taking pleasure from their discomfort – his plans go dreadfully awry, and his beloved daughter is killed instead, the result of his own scheming – or perhaps the partial fulfillment of Monterone’s curse.
Quinn Kelsey’s 2014 performance as Rigoletto for English National Opera, drew the following comment from The Guardian/Observer: “While his music explodes with all too human anguish, his brutal nature, superbly portrayed by the Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey, is repellent. His boorish, tortured performance, together with a voice rich and secure from bottom to high top, is incomparable.” Earlier this season, Mr Kelsey appeared in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Verdi’s Il Trovatore at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and in a new production of Rigoletto for Oper Frankfurt. In the first of two debuts scheduled for this August, he appears in concert productions of Aïda with Chorégies d’Orange, and Thaïs with the Melbourne Symphony conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Fall brings another appearance in Rigoletto with Lyric Opera Chicago, and Quinn Kelsey ends 2017 with a debut performance as Peter in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel for the Metropolitan Opera under Sir Donald Runnicles.
Tbilisi-born soprano Nino Machaidze – described by Opera News as “an artist with confidence, individuality and a big musical temperament to back up a glamorous profile” – is a graduate of the Accademia del Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Her international career was launched with appearances at La Scala as Marie in Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment in 2007, followed by her debut in the same role at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. The summer of 2008 saw Ms Machaidze’s debut at the Salzburg Festival as Juliette, opposite Rolando Villazon, in a new production of Romeo et Juliette, and subsequent international debuts include appearances at major opera houses of the world, such as the Metropolitan Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, Berliner Staatsoper, Gran Teatro del Liceu in Barcelona, Theatre Royale de la Monnaie in Brussels, Opera National de Paris, The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and Los Angeles Opera.
Samoan-born tenor Pene Pati has been described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “A New Zealander who boasts a lithe and radiant tone, deep theatrical instincts and plenty of charisma”. He has a number of impressive awards to his name – the Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonygne ‘Bel Canto’ Award in 2012, first place at the Montserrat Caballé International Aria Competition in 2014, second place and the Audience Prize at Placido Domingo’s Operalia in 2015, and Second Prize in that year’s Neue Stimmen Competition as well. For Pene Pati, this particular production of Rigoletto will be something of a family affair. In what San Francisco Opera describes as “a remarkable coincidence of casting” his wife, second year Adler Fellow soprano Amina Edris, sings the role of Countess Ceprano, and his brother, first year Adler Fellow tenor Amitai Pati sings Matteo Borsa.
Also in the cast are Latvian mezzo-soprano Zanda Švēde – who recently completed her final year as an Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera – as Maddalena, Sparafucile’s daughter. Making his debut for SF Opera as Count Monterone, is Reginald Smith Jr – described by Opera News as having “one of the most exciting baritone sounds to come along in years” with a voice which is “ample and thrillingly dramatic”. Sparafucile is sung by bass Andrea Silvestrelli, following whose debut in this role at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Chicago Sun-Times reported: “There were wild cheers for Andrea Silvestrelli …who brought a terrifying, sepulchral tone to the assassin Sparafucile.”
For director Rob Kearley – who won acclaim for his staging of Weinberg’s The Passenger at Israeli Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Houston Grand Opera – Rigoletto marks his first engagement with San Francisco Opera. Sets are by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Constance Hoffman, and lighting by Gary Marder.
Music Director Nicola Luisotti directs the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus (Chorus Director Ian Robertson) in all performances of Rigoletto, with the exception of the final one on July 1, which will be led by Resident Conductor Jordi Bernàcer.
Rigoletto, sung in Italian with English supertitles, will run for eight performances, from May 31 through July 1, at the War Memorial Opera House. For tickets and further information, visit the San Francisco Opera website.
On Sunday evening, June 4, Classical KDFC will broadcast San Francisco Opera’s production of Leoš Janáček’s Věc Makropulos (The Makropulos Case), recorded at the War Memorial Opera House in October last year, and starring Nadja Michael as Emilia Marty. For more details on this broadcast, visit the KDFC website.