A Conversation with Maestro Valéry Ryvkin

by Charles Donelan

Rigaletto.jpgThis weekend, the second annual Santa
Barbara Opera Festival, Giuseppe Verdi edition, presents
Rigoletto at the Lobero Theatre on Saturday night. Next
week, the festival will continue with Verdi’s Un Ballo in
, or “The Masked Ball.” Last Friday, Valéry Ryvkin,
the veteran conductor of Opera Santa Barbara, spoke about the
upcoming version of Rigoletto.

Can you put Rigoletto into the context of
Verdi’s career and his reputation?
Of course. It’s from
his middle period, specifically the great years 1851-1853, when he
composed his three best-known works: Rigoletto, Il
, and La Traviata. This burst of creativity
met with great success. In this period, he singlehandedly made
opera incredibly popular all over the world with these works. The
duke’s canzone, “La donna é mobile” from Act III, is perhaps the
most famous single song in all of opera.

Is there something about the music in Rigoletto
that distinguishes it from the others in Verdi’s golden
Absolutely, because Rigoletto is the
closest of the three to Beethoven. The nuances of Verdi’s
orchestration in this opera reflect his study of Beethoven and his
adaptation of the composer’s stark, simple devices. That’s why it
succeeds in sounding so demotic and new — not at all like the bel
canto, yet still recognizably the work of Verdi. For instance, in
the scene where Rigoletto first meets Sparafucile, the assassin,
the instrumentation is pared down to just the solo cello, the
double bass, and touches of pizzicato. It sounds great now — very
colorful and suggestive; in the 21st century, we are used to such
dynamics. But in its time, this was revolutionary, and for opera
audiences in the 1850s it must have been very dramatic indeed.

What made you choose this opera for the
When I go before the board of Opera Santa
Barbara to make my proposals, I always insist that we choose our
programs out of artistic necessity. The fact that Madame
would fill the theater is not reason enough to do
it. In Rigoletto, the modernity of the situation and the
character set off the beautiful and innovative score. The human
conflicts in Verdi are often very modern, and none more so than
those described by this opera.

Can you say a little more about the character
He is a bit unpleasant, don’t you
think? Oh yes, very dark, very sinister. There is so much sarcasm
and misery to this role — it’s really quite unusual that way.
Rigoletto is by no means just a jester at the court of the
duke. He has all these other roles, and most of them are cruel.
It’s not necessarily one of Hugo’s best plays [the work which
Rigoletto is based on is Le Roi S’Amuse by French poet
Victor Hugo], but when we see this hunchback alone with his
daughter, and realize that, given his appearance and position in
society, this is likely to be all the happiness he will ever know,
then the sympathy begins, and we start to feel something for this
man who is, by all accounts, fundamentally very unsympathetic. In a
way, Rigoletto is almost like King Lear — a man who has reached
human limits and is suffering there, out at the edge. He’s his own
worst enemy, and his daughter, Gilda, who means the world to him,
ends up betraying him and dying for her love of the duke precisely
because she too has this self-destructive streak. She takes a wrong
turn, too, and it gives the whole thing a dreadful kind of reality
that these characters, father and daughter, resemble each other

What about the duke? Is he a kind of Don Juan
Yes, the duke, like Don Juan, possesses some
almost demonic features. In rehearsal we were working on the scene
in which he comes up to one of the sopranos in public, right in
front of her husband, and they have a duet together, a little
minuet. At first the singers were being a little too polite, kind
of like ceramic figurines, but then I said to [director] Stephanie
[Sundine] that it really should feel a little more dangerous, the
way this man is showing the woman that he wants her and doing it
right in full view of her husband. We needed to see his magic
power, and feel the fact that he not only loves women, but has the
power to get them, whether they are attached or not. He is in a
candy shop, and I think that, eventually, we got that feeling into
the scene.

Thanks so much, Maestro Ryvkin. See you at the
Yes, thank you, see you at the opera.


Opera Santa Barbara presents Rigoletto by Giuseppe
Verdi, directed by Stephanie Sundine, on Saturday, February 24,
7:30 pm; Friday, March 2, 7:30 pm; Sunday, March 4, 2:30 pm; and
Saturday, March 10, 7:30 pm. All performances at the Lobero
Theatre. For tickets, call 963-0761 or visit lobero.com.


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