Early on in “Rigoletto,” a curse befalls the title character that will dog him throughout the tale. But San Francisco Opera’s re-staging of the Verdi favorite, which opened Wednesday, is blessed from the outset, because superb baritone Quinn Kelsey sings one of the operatic repertoire’s most tragic roles.
Kelsey may don the costume of a court jester as Rigoletto, but he commands the stage like a king, with an authoritative, lustrous lyricism that fills the house, and a masterful portrayal of a father whose daughter means everything to him. Sure, he pokes fun at court retainers and their womenfolk he sees fit for mockery; yet he’s also arrestingly moving, and evokes compassion, as he repeatedly bemoans the curse hurled on him by one of the objects of his derision.
English director Rob Kearley makes his debut with the company in the production, which features Michael Yeargan’s tilted set design inspired by metaphysical artist Giorgio de Chirico. Along with largely somber, even sinister, lighting, the net effect conveys a foreboding feeling that Rigoletto’s curse will come back to haunt him.
Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze makes a fine impression in her SFO debut as Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda. Her warm, ample voice glided smoothly, most enchantingly in her Act 1 aria of declarative love “Caro nome che il mio cor.” She also made for a compelling daddy’s girl to Kelsey’s tenderly loving Rigoletto in their duets together, including the Act 2 “Piangi, fanciulla” and the tear-and-curtain-dropping “Lassu in cielo.”
Gilda falls for one of opera’s most notorious womanizers, the Duke of Mantua, sung by tenor and Adler fellow Pene Pati. Pati comes across as an almost boyish, though exuberantly puckish, playboy, and while his voice was on the small side for the Duke, it was clarion clear and hit all the high notes, most notably in his Act 3 showpiece aria “La donna è mobile.”
Among supporting roles, the bass and company regular Andrea Silvestrelli and baritone Reginald Smith Jr. are standouts. As the hired killer Sparafucile, Silvestrelli’s stentorian voice darkly radiates from the stage, while Smith delivers a dusky, muscular account as Count Monterone whose bitingly fateful curse addles Rigoletto.
Mezzo-soprano Zanda Svede, as Sparafucile’s Duke-of-Mantua-smitten sister Maddalena, provides a capable, sultry fourth member of the famous Act 3 quartet with the Duke of Mantua, Rigoletto and Gilda.
Music director Nicola Luisotti conducted the orchestra with glowing flair, while Ian Robertson’s chorus ably populated the stage with all the necessary Italianate details.
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. June 6, June 9, June 14, June 22, June 27 and July 1; 2 p.m. June 18
Tickets: $26 to $398
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com