By chance, my husband and I happened to see three different operas in nine days: Houston Grand Opera’s Otello on Friday November 7 and their Così fan tutti on Saturday November 15, and Arizona Opera’s Rigoletto in Phoenix on Friday November 14. In the days between, we were attending the Division of Planetary Sciences conference in Tucson, and had found out that one of my husband’s planetary science colleagues would be performing in the chorus of Rigoletto. Naturally we didn’t want to miss the chance to see him, and had a wonderful time meeting some of the chorus members afterwards in our hotel bar.
Needless to say, this was all a bit frenetic, especially Saturday, when we had to drive from Phoenix to the Tucson airport, then fly to Houston, then drive straight from the airport to HGO. (I literally changed into a dress in the 50-degree rainy weather in the Park N Fly parking lot. Hey, I’m not proud!) Miraculously, especially considering that United managed to put another flight’s luggage onto our plane and then needed forty minutes to correct the error, we made it just in time for curtain.
But starting back at the beginning... The first opera of HGO’s 2014-15 season was Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello (libretto by Arrigo Boito). I have to admit that I was not overly excited to see this, mainly because my husband and I were both exhausted from trying to finish the draft of a planetary science textbook chapter that day, after several late nights working on it. Also, back when I was a bratty college student and didn’t appreciate Shakespeare as much as I do now, I took a seminar class in his tragedies, and remembered our professor telling us that the plot of Othello could be described as “someone drops a handkerchief and all hell breaks loose.” So much of opera and theater is based on misunderstandings and misapprehensions, and I just didn’t anticipate that I could take this story seriously and be invested in it.
I was completely wrong.
I don’t know exactly what it was about this production, but I was completely engrossed in the story and I truly bought into its tragic nature. I was convinced that Otello (Simon O’Neill) and Desdemona (Ailyn Pérez) were very much in love, and that they were the victims of a manipulative, evil bastard (Marco Vratogna as Iago) who sows chaos for the sake of chaos. Of course, Otello is an idiot for believing Iago, but it still rang true rather than feeling contrived, in contrast to the plot of (for instance) Rigoletto. Otello’s sets and chorus scenes were impressive, and I absolutely loved the scene in Act II with the children’s chorus. Although I don’t believe in gods or saints, or in the idea that beauty is inherently virtuous, when the ethereally beautiful Desdemona greets a crowd of children while they sing in their lovely high voices, well, that’s as close as I get to a feeling of religious awe. I will definitely be buying a recording of Otello, and also have plans to explore the play further in both audio and visual forms. (A note of interest: Wikipedia tells me that Shakespeare’s Othello, written in approximately 1603, was based on an Italian short story “Un Capitano Moro” ("A Moorish Captain") by Cinthio, first published in 1565.)
A final note on Otello: I heard more than one person mention they were back to see it a second time during the run. The night we attended was the last performance; if we had gone to an earlier one, I would have been very tempted to come back a second time as well.
Unlike Otello, however, in this case I really had to struggle to get past the plot. The title character is court jester to the Duke, a notorious womanizer. Rigoletto mocks a count, whose daughter the Duke had courted; the count curses Rigoletto, who shortly thereafter meets an assassin, Sparafucile, and ponders the idea of hiring him. Rigoletto then returns home where he meets his beloved daughter, Gilda, whom he essentially keeps locked up. It turns out that the Duke had spied Gilda at church and has followed her home. They profess their love for one another but Gilda is ignorant of the Duke’s true identity. The hostile men of court decide to kidnap Gilda, believing her to be Rigoletto’s mistress, and they trick Rigoletto into helping them by saying they’re kidnapping the count’s wife.
And all of this is just in the first act.
Confusion aside, it’s pretty hard not to be disgusted by almost everyone’s behavior. The courtiers think it’s fine to kidnap Rigoletto’s mistress, but it’s unclear to me if they would have taken Gilda if they’d known she was his daughter. I don't think they would have, because I think perhaps in their minds the difference is that a woman who is a mistress is already “ruined,” whereas kidnapping a virtuous young virgin would actually ruin her, since a woman who has been at the mercy of a group of men such as this will at least have her reputation devastated even if she is not actually despoiled. But while we dislike the men at court for deciding it's okay to kidnap a mistress (who are the very least will be terrified at the possibility of rape), how are we supposed to remain sympathetic to Rigoletto later when he too goes along with the kidnapping, believing the count's wife to be the victim? Just because the count was an ass to him, his wife must suffer?
I’m not suggesting that the storyline be changed at this late date, or that there aren’t other things to appreciate about this or any other opera with a less-than-stellar plot. But like I said, it can be hard to get past these things. Fortunately, I found the second and third acts a lot more palatable: Act II consists of Rigoletto trying to get Gilda back, Gilda defending the Duke, and Rigoletto swearing vengeance (remember the conveniently met assassin from Act I?). In Act III, Rigoletto proves to Gilda that the Duke is unfaithful, as he is currently trying to seduce the assassin’s sister, Maddalena. Gilda decides she loves the Duke anyway, and upon overhearing that the assassin plans to kill the Duke, she puts herself in the Duke’s place and dies to save him. Rigoletto, realizing that his own plans for vengeance are ultimately responsible for killing Gilda, believes that the count’s curse has come to terrible fruition.
Actually, in describing Acts II and III, I realize that the plot really doesn’t become any less ridiculous than it was in Act I, but somehow the music manages to better transcend the silliness. It’s really quite wonderful when Rigoletto, Gilda, the Duke, and Maddalena sing simultaneously, and it's easy to get swept up in the story for a short while, at least. But Gilda is the only truly sympathetic character (Maddalena is fine right up until she says that they should simply kill a beggar in place of the Duke). And it's hard to respect even Gilda when she’s willing to die for an unfaithful jerk that she just met -- here is where the motivation is a little hard for a modern audience to swallow. Dying for love isn't a problem in itself, storywise, but it’s a little more meaningful when the person deserves the sacrifice being made for him. So again, thank goodness for the music, and the overall production values of this performance.
At Don Alfonso’s urging, Guglielmo and Ferrando tell their lovers they must go off to battle but they quickly return, ludicrously disguised as Albanians. Don Alfonso enlists Despina (Nuccia Focile), the ladies’ maid, to help things along as the two men each try to court the other’s fiancée. At first, the sisters Fiordilgi (Rachel Willis-Sørensen) and Dorabella (Melody Moore) resist, Fiordilgi with noticeably more vigor, but the “Albanians” perform increasingly silly antics, such as pretending to drink poison when the ladies will not return their affection. Eventually the men wear them down, even Fiordilgi, and they are on the verge of marrying when fanfare announces the “return” of the women’s original lovers and all is confessed and forgiven.
Good parts first: this performance was full of truly enjoyable comedic acting. The soldiers are laugh-out-loud funny as they twirl mustaches and capes; the sisters are amusing in their indignation and later their rationalization; and Despina, for me, sort of stole the show. The music is good, of course. Every one of the six main players has lengthy solos, each couple sings together (five couples in all, once you take the musical romance chairs into account), and the entire group sings together. The problem is that they do it several times, imparting the same sentiments over and over. If this opera were shorter by a third, I think it would make for a delightfully entertaining evening, but it is hard to sit still for so long with so little story as an anchor, no matter how pretty the music. I certainly can’t fault the performers, however; I thought they were well cast and I enjoyed their voices.
That said, I do think it would have been a lot more amusing if the two couples realized they were more suited to their new lovers than the original ones -- and physically, the new couples looked better together than the old.
There was one other thing that puzzled me: the costuming and actions of the small chorus. When Act I opens, the three male leads appear to be in a tavern, and Don Alfonso has a prettily dressed but bald woman sitting on his knee. In the background, additional chorus members do things -- another woman wearing a bald cap whose coloring is out-and-out yellow for some reason appears to be putting on make-up and then possibly sneezing. Was she supposed to be a performer? Was she sick? In addition to this performance, I had seen the dress rehearsal of Così a few weeks earlier, and both times I was equally distracted, trying to figure out who these people were and what they were doing. For a moment I had this strange conviction that they must be dying of consumption or jaundice or both while preparing backstage for a performance at the Moulin Rouge, but of course that wasn't the case, and in the end I never could make any sense of it. While I found this opera’s sets to be simple yet quite effective, I just could not figure out the use or purpose of the chorus other than to provide some of the means for Don Alfonso's manipulations. It's possible that I'm missing some historical context; I certainly don't fault the choral performers for this.
On a side note, it was fun for me to see another opera company that operates quite differently from ours. At HGO, for instance, the six main operas of the season are grouped together into three “rep periods,” so that the company overlaps and alternates the performances. On the plus side, of course, this gives the performers the chance to rest their voices, but logistically, it also means that they have to switch out some very elaborate sets with not much turnaround time. I’ve begun to enjoy watching how the opera season -- and the ballet season, since they perform in the same venue -- falls into the same scheduling patterns year after year. (Don’t ask me why; I find comfort in patterns!) In Arizona, they alternate the main performers within a single opera rather than overlapping two different shows. They'll perform Rigoletto a total of five times; the Duke and Rigoletto roles were each given a 3-2 split between performers while the Gilda we saw, Sarah Coburn, will have been spelled once by a studio artist named Andrea Shokery.
To conclude, I do feel as though I learn something every time I go to the opera, but on the other hand I realize just how very little I know. I still feel awkward “reviewing” opera when I have so little knowledge of the history and culture behind it, and no real ability to discern between good singing and great singing. Because of that, my thoughts are based almost entirely on my response to the story, the sets, the costumes, the acting, and the appeal (or lack thereof) of the music to my personal taste. In other words, I’m the exact opposite of a sophisticated opera-goer. But I’m trying, and enjoying the experience.
Photo of Rigoletto by Tim Trumble Photography, from the Arizona Opera photo archive.
Photo of Così fan tutti by Lynn Lane, from the Houstonia Magazine website: Norman Reinhardt (Ferrando), Melody Moore (Dorabella), Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Fiordiligi), and Jacques Imbrailo (Guglielmo).