Hunchback’s curse brings S.F. audience to its feet

Conductor debuts with Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto,’ an opera with modern corollaries

Some say that Verdi’s “Rigoletto” was way ahead of its time.

If you fast forward this 1851 opera — which opened at the San Francisco Opera on Saturday night with Conductor Stephen Lord making his debut — you just might get a contemporary glimpse of love, desperation and infidelity at its best.

The opera — which was last seen at The War Memorial Opera House in 2001 — opens with the lecherous Duke of Mantua (Guiseppe Gipali), who’s looking for a woman with whom to pass the night. One could easily liken him to a scammer in today’s dating world, one of these devious men who lies about his age, profession and so on, just to get the girl.

“This woman or that one, or thatone, they’re all the same,” the Duke says. “If one pleases me today, tomorrow it will be another one.”

While the Duke — played by Albanian tenor Gipali in his San Francisco Opera debut — gave a superb performance on Saturday, his voice was soft and challenging for operagoers to hear.

It was the emergence of Paolo Gavanelli, who is acknowledged in the opera world as a leading interpreter of the role of Rigoletto, that captivated the almost-packed house. The audience chuckled as the hunchbacked Rigoletto — whom one might compare with a modern-day single dad with physical challenges — hurled barbs at everyone, including the old nobleman (Monterone, played by Greer Grimsley), who promptly cursed the jester.

The opera revolves around this curse, a notion that was emphasized by Alexandra Amati-Camperi, professor and director of the music program at the University of San Francisco, during her 30-minute “Opera Talk” prior to the performance.

Here was a pessimistic man who internalized his own curse. You know the type — always talking about how doomed he is. In the end, of course, it appears that he might have something to do with his own downfall.

“Rigoletto” — Verdi’s 17th opera, based on Victor Hugo’s play, “Le Roi s’amuse” — was not initially well-received last century, when the Italian government suppressed it on grounds of immorality. But if one looks beyond the story of the hustling gigolo — the Duke — here’s a modern-day account of an overprotective parent. Rigoletto won’t let his 15-year-old daughter, Gilda (played by Mary Dunvealy) leave the house, except to go to church.

“She doesn’t know anything about life,” explained Amati-Camperi in her pre-opera talk. “So, she falls in love with the first man who shows any interest in her.”

This is, of course, the Duke, to whom in a magnetic Second Act, Gilda declares her love: “You are the first to make my heart tremble.”

During the second half of the performance — with a final heartwarming feather-daughter duet by Gavanelli and Dunvealy — Rigoletto listens to his daughter, perhaps for the first time in his life. Both performers received well-deserved standing ovations for captivating Saturday night’s audience.

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