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[whitespace] 'Rigoletto' Emotional Dynamics: Scott Bearden's 'Rigoletto' combines vocal range with theatrical presence.

Infinite Jester

Opera SJ goes gothic with edgy production of 'Rigoletto'

By Michael J. Vaughn

ONE OF THE REAL REWARDS for the performing arts devotee is that rare occasion when you discover fresh meaning in a work you've already seen 23 times. The trick requires both a great work and an outstanding production--exactly the confluence that took place at the opening of Opera San José's production of Rigoletto.

Illumination No. 1 arose from the opening court scene. Credit the assured stage direction of Bodo Igesz, the medieval orange haze wrought by the costumes from San Francisco Opera's esteemed closet or the presence of exceedingly strong principals, but the interplay of the Duke of Mantua's court seemed immediately translatable to present-day office politics.

A powerful, hedonistic CEO (the duke, or perhaps Larry Ellison) makes a habit of sleeping with the wives of his vice presidents (the courtiers) while his paranoid assistant (the jester Rigoletto) abuses the staff with his Don Rickles routine while whispering suggested targets for downsizing (or beheadings) to the big boss. Meanwhile, a couple of guys from security facilitate the forced retirement of an aging programmer (Monterone) by frog-marching him from the building, the old man laying down curses and lawsuit threats all the way to the lobby. Illumination No. 2 is the duke himself, who really is the same personage as that guy you hated in high school, the one who always had everything (including most of the cheerleading squad) handed to him on a platter. He makes Don Giovanni look like a wanker; not only does every female in Mantua fall for him, they insist on following him around like a troop of guardian Girl Scouts, waiting for the chance to jump on a grenade for him. And Verdi must have liked him, too, because he handed him enough great melodies to fill a jukebox.

AS FOR THE PRODUCTION, you have to start with baritone Scott Bearden, who so fully embodies the title role you halfway expect the hump is real, too. His singing is strong, but his acting (the true requirement of the part) is superb, a balance of emotional dynamics in which the outbursts come only when they're truly needed. One of those, his pleas for "Pieta!" (Pity!) from the courtiers in "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata," will break your heart more surely than six beers and a Hank Williams tune.

Soprano Sandra Rubalcava offers a fine complement in her Gilda, a role that seems the perfect match for her voice. In an era when all sopranos seem to be after that 300-pound-Viking-lady sound, Rubalcava had been forcing her tone in previous roles, but here she seems supremely relaxed. The results are lovely lyric touches like the charming trill and rolled "R"s she offers in "Caro nome" and the lilting appoggiatura ornaments with Papa Rigoletto in the duet, "Deh non parlare al misero."

As for the homecoming king, tenor Jonathan Hodel recovered from an early bout of Jacques Cousteau Syndrome (that is, approaching everything from underneath) just in time for my current favorite, the Act II "Parmi veder le lagrime."

The bonus round arrives from OSJ's supporting roles. Imagine the grand luxury of having someone with the stature and strength of OSJ alum Douglas Nagel to handle the brief but crucial bass-baritone "Maledizione!" (curse) of Monterone. And then, on the up-and-comer side, we have baritone Joseph Wright, who lends head courtier Marullo a playful frat-boy exuberance.

Only two minor flaws to report. For one, the staging of the kidnap scene (in which Marullo tricks a blindfolded Rigoletto into aiding in the kidnapping of his own daughter) missed a chance for dark comedy. For two, the men's chorus better stop drinking those triple cappuccinos before curtain, because the combination of peer pressure and Verdi's dotted notes led them to more acceleration than a soccer mom late for game time.

The accouterments, on the other hand, were splendid, beginning with Sara Jobin's orchestra, notably the simple but thrilling double-beat motif of the brass in the overture. Peter Crompton's sets, meanwhile, delivered all kinds of gothic, edgy touches, including the off-kilter shutters of Rigoletto's house and the oversized head of a statue, reposing next to Rigoletto's garden gate like a remnant from a race of giants.

Rigoletto plays Feb. 9, 10, 13, 15, 17, 22 and 23 at 8pm and Feb. 4, 11, 18 and 25 at 3pm at the Montgomery Theater, San Carlos and Market streets, San Jose. Tickets are $40-$54. (www.operasj.org or 408.437.4450)

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From the February 8-14, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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