Aucoin, In The Pit, Leads Rigoletto On Electrifying Ride
By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES – In a pre-performance talk May 12, Los Angeles Opera artist-in-residence Matthew Aucoin mentioned Verdi’s extraordinary career trajectory, one that was on the upswing all the way to his last opera, Falstaff, at age 80. As Aucoin spoke, played a keyboard, and even sang a bit, one couldn’t help but wonder what will be in store for this slightly built, 28-year-old, Ivy League-trained ball of energy who seems to be conquering one major bastion of classical music after another. I’m not saying that we have another Verdi in our presence, but he is certainly somebody to watch as his career trajectory rises.
To close out its mainstage season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Opera turned its revival of Verdi’s Rigoletto over to Aucoin in the pit, and the results were often electrifying. Aucoin’s sole previous gig there was in Philip Glass’ Akhnaten in November of 2016, when the young conductor had trouble getting the hang of Glass’ grooves with an orchestra that was at sea in an ocean of arpeggios. But Aucoin clearly has a great understanding of how to animate Rigoletto, perhaps bringing his own insight as a composer to the dance.
First of all, we should clear away some cobwebs that have sprouted around this opera due to its immense popularity and inevitable overexposure. Besides being Verdi’s first out-and-out masterpiece, Rigoletto was also a dangerous piece of drama, one that took potshots at the divine right of kings with its thinly disguised portrayal of King Francis I of France as an amoral libertine. There is some historical truth in that, however exaggerated, and in its publicity, LA Opera couldn’t resist describing the King – a.k.a. the Duke of Mantua in the opera – as “a self-centered ruler who thinks he can get away with anything.” (Remind you of someone we know in the news?)
With several operas under his belt and finally a first-rate libretto (by Francesca Maria Piave, based on a Victor Hugo play) to work with, Verdi was able to unleash his tremendous dramatic abilities while breaking out of the straitjacket of bel canto opera conventions. There is rage in the music as well as heartbreak, reflecting the composer’s own experiences as a father and husband, for Verdi lost his first wife and two infant daughters to illness when he was in his 20s. The ingenious construction of Act III within the time frame of a thunderstorm never fails to amaze me, and its hit tune, “La donna è mobile” – repeated twice so that you’re guaranteed not to forget it – was based on an actual line of graffiti carved on a windowpane by Francis I himself.
Aucoin gets the point that Rigoletto is a revolutionary work, and he enforced it with a busy, dynamic conducting manner that bore some physical similarity to that of LA Opera’s general director, Plácido Domingo, whenever he takes up the baton. He was particularly good at putting the bounce into the dance music at the outset of Act I, and he knew how to build the suspense in Act III leading right up to Verdi’s explosive thunderstorm. He was sensitive enough to give his singers room to breathe and stretch out the phrasing during their big arias, and this time, the LA Opera Orchestra played as alertly for Aucoin as they customarily do for their regular music director, James Conlon.
The experienced Verdi baritone Leo Nucci, now 76, was supposed to have sung the title role, but he cancelled a while back. In his place, LA Opera got Juan Jesús Rodríguez – Spanish, a mere stripling by comparison at 49, yet most convincing in his ability to encompass, with a warm baritone, Rigoletto’s dual personality as the scheming, mocking court jester and loving, overprotective father. Lisette Oropesa looked every inch a Gilda yet gave the role an extra dimension. Far from just an innocent ingenue, her Gilda seemed impatient and not happy at all about being cooped up in an apartment, eager to break free, albeit in the wrong direction of a manipulative lover (the disguised Duke). An early wobble in her voice all but disappeared by the time she got to her showcase aria “Caro nome,” which emerged sweetly and winningly.
Arturo Chacón-Cruz’s Duke opened rather thinly with “Questa o quella,” and his pitch wasn’t 100% on the mark in parts of Act I, but he warmed to his task with a darker timbre after intermission. Ginger Costa-Jackson made a super-sexy Maddalena, and Craig Colclough was an authoritative Count Monterone. But the outstanding voice in the cast, hands down, belonged to Morris Robinson, whose rare true bass timbre contributed to an incredibly threatening portrayal of Sparafucile. All of the lead roles required warmup periods of various lengths except Robinson, who came out firing from the start.
The Mark Lamos-directed production, which originated at San Francisco Opera in 1997 and first appeared in Los Angeles in 2010, was not one of those ubiquitous attempts at whisking the debauched court of Mantua to Beverly Hills or Little Italy or Las Vegas or Mars or what-have-you – which can be fun if they manage to serve Verdi’s drama. Rather, this one used basic, almost generic sets, enlivened by Robert Wierzel’s vividly colorful lighting designs and a cast of commedia dell’arte courtiers decked out (by costumer Constance Hoffman) as if for Halloween. With a performance that gradually increased in intensity, reaching full bloom at the right time in the great quartet and subsequent trio in Act III, we didn’t need much more.
Three of the cast’s leads will change on May 27 and continue through the end of Rigoletto’s run on June 3. Baritone Ambrogio Maestri – who was very impressive as Scarpia in Tosca last season – assumes the title role, tenor Michael Fabiano takes over as the Duke, and soprano Adela Zaharia steps in as Gilda. Aucoin remains in the pit and will also conduct two performances of his own opera Crossing at the Wallis Performing Arts Center in Beverly Hills May 25 and 26 under the auspices of LA Opera Off-Grand.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.
Date posted: May 16, 2018