For none of the advertised reasons, and all of the right ones, the Los Angeles Opera has come through with one of its season’s best stagings, and one of the company’s few genuine Verdian triumphs. No amount of fiddling with the externals of Verdi’s steamy panorama of betrayal and vendetta — and there was plenty — got in the way of what really matters in bringing a sovereign operatic score to life.
“Bruce Beresford Transforms ‘Rigoletto,’ ” trumpets the lead article in the program book. It was all over town, in fact, that the Australian film director (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “Double Jeopardy”) had plans to shoot Verdi’s drama far out of its original Renaissance-Mantua setting and transform it into a biting expose of imperialistic double-dealings among today’s movieland elite. True, set and costume designers John Stoddart and Johann Stegmeir have melded a Hollywood identity into the visual setting: a high-kicking party assemblage to celebrate producer Duke Mantua’s “Vendetta,” his latest film epic; a rundown bar alongside a Venice, Calif., canal. Providing further “authenticity,” costumes for cast principals were created in Giorgio Armani’s legendary design emporium, and Duane Schuler’s lighting bathes it all in tones of hard-edged neon.
To what avail? Beresford’s updated scenario may identify hired-murderer Sparafucile as a “stunt man,” but basso Eric Owens’ character performs no stunts and murders for hire, as Verdi’s libretto ordains; Beresford’s Rigoletto may undergo transformation from jester to “agent,” but baritone Haijing Fu sings the lines of Verdi’s text, which refer to himself as a court buffoon, as written. The time-and-place may change, but the evening’s glory is the work of Verdi himself and the L.A. Opera’s superior performing forces.
Chief among these was the Gilda of Albanian soprano Inva Mula, her fourth role with the company. Her singing is a cherishable mix of girlish appeal and awesome technique, her stage presence human and enchanting. As Papa Rigoletto, Chinese baritone and Metropolitan Opera stalwart Haijing Fu turns in an impressive company debut. Tenor Frank Lopardo, as the predatory “Duke of Mantua” of Verdi’s score, or “Duke Mantua” of the Beresford remake — whatever –was his usual clean-voiced, honest musical self.
Britain’s Richard Hickox had earned high marks earlier this season conducting Bellini’s “Capulets and Montagues” and did so again in a fleet and spirited performance. Against the overuse of the pruning shears practiced by some companies — including the L.A. Opera in its 1993 version of the opera, a botched staging by Marta, wife of Placido Domingo — this “Rigoletto” was given nearly complete, lacking only the second stanza of the big act two tenor aria, the opera’s most expendable music.
“Rigoletto” is a veteran of the survival process. Jonathan Miller’s English-language production for London’s English National Opera, which turned up in Texas and New York in 1984, plunked the opera down among Manhattan’s Mafiosi; Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s film version at La Scala set the final action in a rowboat far from shore. Somehow, the sublimity of Verdi’s own conception rises above all tampering.