Opera review: An evening at the 'modern' opera fires up emotions

Say the word “”opera”” and watch the majority of college-age students go running in the other direction. The very word is enough to bring to mind images of antiquated, irrelevant plots, dusty and ostentatious costuming, and drama that would make most teenagers’ lives seem dull by comparison.

Courtesy of San Diego Opera

San Diego Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “”Rigoletto”” may change all that. Enter a production supervised by the Oscar-nominated director of “”Driving Miss Daisy,”” transplanted to modern-day Los Angeles, with sets ranging from Bel Air mansions to Venice Beach bars, and with costuming by Giorgio Armani.

“”Rigoletto”” traditionally tells the story of an eponoymous court jester who tries to protect his sheltered daughter from his philandering master, the Duke of Mantua, only to find that his zealousness has repaid him with tragedy by the end.

The plot is compelling enough in its native 16th century setting, but the move to a locale more relevant to modern viewers makes it all the more captivating. Rigoletto becomes a fawning agent; “”Duke”” Mantua is a superstar movie producer; the assassin Sparafucile, who seals the fate of Rigoletto and his only daughter, is a Hollywood stunt man.

San Diego Opera’s production of this classic retains everything of the original vocals, music and plot. It is the sets and costuming that receive the most distinct overhaul: soaring ceilings and shiny metal decor for Duke Mantua’s Bel Air mansion and a grimy, neon-lit bar and hotel at the water’s edge for Sparafucile’s Venice Beach haunt.

Many characters look as though they would be at home in some pocket of modern Los Angeles, whether it be at the Beverly Center shopping for a luxury watch or on a corner of Hollywood Boulevard beckoning suggestively to passersby.

The sets are appealing eye candy, but the singers often do not make full use of the area allowed to them; as is typical in traditional productions, they may loiter for many minutes within a small confine. The use of the bar area in Venice Beach is a rare time in the performance when the singers exploit the ingenuity of the set construction, moving throughout the area and interacting with the objects around them.

The cast and crew of “”Rigoletto”” include a diverse array of talent, including many who have worked with San Diego Opera before.

Baritone Mark Rucker, who sings the title role, made his San Diego debut in 1996 and has subsequently worked around the United States and Austria.

The show-stealer, however, is soprano Maureen O’Flynn, debuting in San Diego as Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda. Her soaring vocals contribute just the right quality of sweetness and power to the role of Gilda. O’Flynn’s singing recently appeared on a CD called “”Operatica: ‘O’,”” a compilation of classical music and opera songs combined with electronic music.

Of relevance to UCSD is Department of Theatre and Dance instructor Jean Isaacs’ involvement with this production of “”Rigoletto.”” Isaacs has choreographed plays at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre and at La Jolla Playhouse. Her work in “”Rigoletto”” is her first involvement with San Diego Opera.

A night of opera is perhaps not everybody’s idea of fun. However, it may be time that the preconceptions holding some back be shattered. San Diego Opera’s “”Rigoletto”” serves as an excellent introduction to what opera can be — soaring, entertaining and just as moving as film or theater.

Further performances of “”Rigoletto”” are scheduled for Jan. 25, 27 and 30. Student discounts are available for Tuesday evening performances for the remainder of the winter season. For more information on “”Rigoletto”” and future productions, visit www.sdopera.com.

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