The audience of the time had a taste for thrillers,” said Brad Dalton, the director of this weekend’s Opera Santa Barbara (OSB) production of Rigoletto. On a break from rehearsal, Dalton explained the extraordinary appeal of Giuseppe Verdi’s dark masterpiece about a hunchbacked court jester who gets locked in mortal conflict with his employer, the evil Duke of Mantua. Although it has gone on to become a staple of great opera houses the world over, Rigoletto offers little in the way of heroic or even sympathetic action. The title character serves as a vicious pit bull for his corrupt and lecherous master, striking fear into the hearts of Mantuan courtiers with his cruel wit. It’s only when his beloved daughter, Gilda, becomes the target of the Duke’s amorous intentions that Rigoletto fights back. This being opera, mistakes and confusion reign, and even the selfless act of a vulnerable young woman winds up giving aid to the wicked rather than assistance to the oppressed.
If this all seems a bit much, consider that Rigoletto contains, among many other great arias, the famous tenor solo “La donna è mobile,” which may well be the single biggest hit song in opera’s history. This lusty combination of beauty and terror expresses Grand Guignol–level villainy with an unforgettable hook, thus staking out territory that would be mined for pop gold well into the 21st century.
For Dalton, this production represents another chance to infuse a talented cast with his energy and focus. In rehearsal last week, Dalton was blocking the abduction scene, a crucial bit of business carried out by chorus members. The director watched intently as these singers negotiated an obstacle course made entirely of colored tape on the floor, using climbing gestures when they reached what would eventually become a ladder, and moving purposefully through a complex set that for now only existed on the floor and in their heads. It’s the kind of scene that could easily be left unclear, only to produce disastrous results.
As Dalton tried it first one way and then another, one got the sense that, like his brother, Andy, the starting quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals, Dalton loves to lead and can bring a cast together into something that’s much more than the sum of its parts. Even when he applied tough love to certain choices, like when he edited the way one singer crossed the stage with a terse “don’t turn out — that’s so old fashioned,” you got the sense that he was still sharing a positive vision of what the scene could become. While the public understandably lavishes most of its attention on the principal singers, it was instructive to see just how much effort goes into rehearsing the chorus, especially when they have to act in order to move the plot forward. When Dalton exhorted his cast to “show us the best kidnapping ever,” it was easy to feel the sense of urgency that he brings to every last detail of a production.
In conversation during the break, discussion turned to the task of creating a vision for the leads: Evan Brummel as Rigoletto, Andrea Carroll as Gilda, and Cody Austin as the Duke. “I am working with Evan to amp up how much Rigoletto misbehaves at court in Act One,” Dalton said. “He’s a terror to the others, but it is because he’s been deprived of so much. That way, in the second act, the audience will feel Rigoletto’s desperation to change his life and to escape from what he has become.” Describing the opera’s exciting third act, Dalton recalled his instructions to Catherine Martin, the mezzo-soprano who will play Maddalena, the sister of the assassin Sparafucile and another of the Duke’s many conquests. “Remember, you’re in a melodrama,” Dalton told Martin, “you’re playing a gypsy death trap, so it’s okay to hold your hip.”
The finale of this revolutionary opera does include many moments worthy of melodrama. The music, as Dalton put it, “is the kind of thing you hear in a silent movie when the girl is tied to the train tracks.”
But Rigoletto, which comes to the Granada Theatre for two performances on Friday and Sunday, November 7 and 9, is not the only reason to get excited for what Opera Santa Barbara has in store. There’s also the season finale, a late April production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Coincidentally, Dalton directed Renée Fleming in the recent Los Angeles production, and he described a magical rehearsal in which he sang the Stanley Kowalski role opposite Fleming’s Blanche for six hours. Although he will not direct OSB’s version, which will instead be in the very capable hands of artistic director Jose Maria Condemi, Dalton did leave the impression that, like his upcoming Rigoletto, this will be another night at the opera that is not to be missed.
Opera Santa Barbara presents Rigoletto at the Granada Theatre (1213 State St.) on Friday, November 7, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, November 9, at 2:30 p.m. Call (805) 899-2222 or visit operasb.org for tickets and info.