By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Copyright © 2007 San Francisco Sentinel
San Francisco Opera and radio station Classical 102.1 KDFC are joining forces again this Sunday in a broadcast of the 2006 production of Verdi’s RIGOLETTO. The program airs at 8:00 PM free of commercial interruption. Fast on the heels of David Gockley being installed as San Francisco Opera’s General Director, Jeannik Méquet (Mrs. Edmund W.) Littlefield handed its Board a no-strings-attached gift of $35 million dollars. Everyone agreeing it came just in time, the endowment represents a loud and clear signal to The City’s cultural benefactors that SF Opera is on its way back into the Major Leagues. A dramatic demonstration of Mr. Gockley’s community outreach and forward thinking happened on Friday night, October 6, 2006 with the free simulcast of Verdi’s RIGOLETTO in Civic Center Plaza and at Stanford’s Frost Amphitheater. The event proved to be an artistic wonderment and a state-of-the-art technological triumph.
Given the several cameras placed throughout the War Memorial Opera House, the thousands of lucky outside viewers were gifted with a continuous flow of multi-varied angles, fabulous close-ups, long-shots and split-screen combinations. The House microphones carried the voices through a digital sound board which then became a balanced mix pushed through a “curvilinear array” of MILO speakers spewing-out gargantuan stereophonic separation to everyone gathered midst the sanctuary of trees decked with lit candelabra – everything under the glow of an illusive Harvest Moon. The viewers inside the Opera House, however, saw and heard something somewhat different.
RIGOLETTO – Broadcast at Civic Center Plaza, 10-06-06. Photo by Jon Han
The overall stage direction of Harry Silverstein was static, occasionally frozen, non-sensical and very often without reason or purpose. It was the common sense and fabulous musicianship of an extraordinary cast that linked us to the plot and our understanding of particular plights and collective mania. Paolo Gavanelli’s magnificent and unqualified ownership of the role of “Rigoletto” is engrained into his body, being many times tried / tested / and proven. Gavanelli is internationally recognized and spoken of as the “Rigoletto of our generation”.
Mary Dunleavy (Gilda) and Paolo Gavanelli (Rigoletto). Photo by Terrence McCarthy
Many opera singers sustain international careers, some for decades by repeating best and most-suited roles in a variety of houses on every continent. Performers of this stripe – along with their producers, fellow musicians, co-stars and loyal fans – understand fully the grueling demands of roles such as “Rigoletto” and everyone’s #1 priority being about The Voice. Following his SF Opera engagement Mr. Gavanelli repeated the role at the Vienna State Opera with tenor Marcus Haddock as the “Duke of Mantua”, also seen as “King Gustav” in Verdi’s UN BALLO IN MASCHERA. (KDFC broadcast scheduled for Sunday, September 2nd.) This past March he teamed with tenor Joseph Calleja under the baton of Friedrich Haider at the Bavarian State Opera. It is reasonable to assume Gavanelli’s vocal performance and stage business remains more or less the same. After all, a high-ranking, politically savvy, middle-aged court jester with a prominent hump on his right shoulder most certainly moves about in a consistent manner and (probably) retains a smart tailor.
Surrealist painter Giorgio di Chirico’s “The Mystery And Melancholy Of A Street” influences the production’s lefts and rights, stops & gos. The painting provided the basis for Michael Yeargan’s set design first seen in 1997, revived in 2001, and – budgetary catastrophes being what they were for SF Opera’s previous administration – dragged out one more time for 2006. As with Chirico’s canvas, Yeargan’s set is indeed both a mystery and melancholic piece of work. Perhaps “Monterone” can find an appropriate curse for it and David Gockley a hugely-jawed sharp-toothed shredder.
Designs of Giorgio di Chirico and Michael Yeargan. Photo by Terrence McCarthy
Greer Grimsley’s credibility as “Monterone”, pronouncer of Rigoletto’s fatal curse, is empowered by his helden (or “heroic”) variety of baritone. Grimsley’s voice is both immensely ferocious and pointed, gliding with ease throughout the stretch of his register. As lightning flashes from above, the towering baritone becomes a whirlwind of hellish fury as he conjures his curse of retribution – casting a spell of horrific vengeance upon the licentious Duke, even swearing to haunt him as a spectral terror, for having violated his daughter and despoiling the honor of his Family. Rigoletto mocks the daughter’s fate and accuses the nobleman of boring the court with his tiresome speeches. Monterone then launches his fury towards Rigoletto, extending to him the same fateful curse. Rigoletto is visibly shaken. And so are we. Greer Grimsley is an electrifying performer, endowed with Teutonic vocal strength and a compelling manner. This August he flies off to Seattle where he takes on the title role in Wagner’s DER FLIEGENDE HOLLANDER.
Another surprise in the supporting cast is Adler Fellow Eugene Brancoveanu as “Marullo”. In the first three scenes of Act 1 we are introduced to the Men’s Chorus, “Rigoletto” and the “Duke of Mantua” – this season sung by Albanian tenor Giuseppe Gipali. By page 5 of the score, Verdi gives his Leading Tenor a fairly challenging aria, “Questa o quella”, with barely a chance to warm-up and packed with High A-flats. Whatever our initial response to both Gavanelli and Gipali – along with the soothing bass-baritone of Jeremy Galyon as “Count Ceprano” (cuckolded that afternoon by the Duke and with the “Countess” blushing just slightly nearby) – Eugene Brancoveanu suddenly pricked up our ears. Come scene 4 and Brancoveanu’s “Marullo” positing that the deformed “Rigoletto” is keeping a mistress – the proscenium arch was suddenly buzzing with resonance. Mr. Brancoveanu sports a strong and beautiful baritone voice that is also startlingly clear, very aggressive and seductive.
EUGENE BRANCOVEANU and GREER GRIMSLEY
Giuseppe Gipali, as the “Duke of Mantua”, is gifted with a fine lyric tenor, beautiful phrasing and – with the assistance of Friday Night’s sound engineer and two huge towers of stadium-size speakers bouncing his voice against the granite and marble palace walls of the Civic Auditorium, the Federal Building, City Hall and the Asian Art Museum – a fine set of performance chops that seem to qualify him as a stand-in for Pavarotti. Perhaps to the folks outside, but not inside at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House and its space for 3300 ticket holders.
In 2005, Gipali sang 3 performances as the “Mantua” with Conductor Zubin Mehta at the Munich State Opera. Its total sound-absorbing body count – 1773 seats, 328 standing – amounts to two-thirds at the War Memorial. We can assume the critics did not go after Giuseppe Gipali’s smallish voice. In the spring of 2006 he sang three performances as “Cavaradossi” in TOSCA at the Opéra de Monte Carlo – 520 seats, located in Monaco’s famed Casino. Less than one-sixth the capacity of the War Memorial. No doubt he delivered an audibly fantastic performance. More than likely, come the duets and ensembles, the assigned leading lady did not drown him out … as did the effortless and shimmering resonance of our compelling and luminous soprano Mary Dunleavy, “Gilda” – innocent daughter of “Rigoletto” and sexual victim of the vain “Duke of Mantua”.
MARY DUNLEAVY – Curtain Calls at Civic Center Plaza, 10-06-06. Photo by Jon Han
Mary Dunleavy is a stunning example of a strong and flexible lyric soprano. Her upper register is both warm and bell-like, dancing with ease throughout the coloratura of “Caro Nome”, brightening the balance of the famed “Quartet”, poignant and celestial in her final dreams of Heaven. As “Gilda”, Mary Dunleavy displays incredible musicianship and glorifies the art of Bel Canto singing. With simple ease and grace she commands our attention and is a giving companion to her fellow cast members. Mary Dunleavy is a love that is here to stay.
Thank you, Jeannik Méquet Littlefield, for your generous vote of confidence and support of General Director David Gockley’s vision for San Francisco Opera. Bigger budgets allow for bigger opportunities and bigger chances to secure the biggest and the best and – which always means a bigger bang for our bulging or borrowed bucks.
MARY DUNLEAVY (Gilda) signs Rigoletto Playbill for SEÁN MARTINFIELD. Photo by Jon Han
Next month’s SF Opera broadcast on Classical 102.1 KDFC – Sunday, June 3 at 8pm – Tchaikovsky’s Joan of Arc. Tchaikovsky’s rarely performed work showcases the artistry of mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick as Joan of Arc, along with tenor Misha Didyk (Charles VII) and baritone Rod Gilfry (Lionel). Donald Runnicles, conductor. Christopher Alexander, director.
See Seán’s recent articles and interviews:
NORMA SHEARER – Headlines the 12th ANNUAL SILENT FILM FESTIVAL
JERSEY BOYS – Smashing Records At The Curran Theatre
DON QUIXOTE – An Impossible Dream at SF Ballet
THE DAMNATION OF FAUST – Absolute Heaven at Davies Symphony Hall
JEANETTE MacDONALD – First Lady of “San Francisco”
ALTAR BOYZ – In San Francisco
An Interview with PASCAL MOLAT – Principal Soloist, San Francisco Ballet
TERRA HAUTE – An Interview with The Stars, John Hutchinson and Elias Escobedo
San Francisco Sentinel’s Fine Arts Critic