Conductor Gustavo Dudamel, left, and baritone Zeljko Lucic interpret… (Ringo H.W. Chiu, For the…)
The Hollywood Bowl, yet again, became a beacon for helicopter pilots Sunday night. But then there was a grisly murder in the Hollywood Hills to check out. A hunchback, who was not really a hunchback, took out a contract on his daughter's lover, a lothario. The job went awry. The young woman was stabbed instead and discovered by her father as she lay dying in a garbage bag.
Which is to say that Gustavo Dudamel chose "Rigoletto" for his annual Bowl opera with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Since this was a concert performance — where is David Lynch when we need him? — broad-shouldered Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic, who was magnificent in the title role of the misshapen jester and tragically overprotective father, stood tall.
Verdi's opera was both an appropriate and inappropriate choice for the Bowl. One of the most popular operas in the repertory, it might be expected to draw a large crowd, especially on a temperate evening that proved a pleasant respite from the day's heat. But Sunday's turnout was a disappointing 5,924 (only a third of the number present for Dudamel andYo-Yo Maon Aug. 7).
"Rigoletto," however, is very much with us at the moment as opera companies gear up to celebrate the bicentennial of Verdi's birth in 2013. "Rigoletto" opens the new season at San Francisco Opera next month and closes La Scala's 2011-12 season in November. In January at the Metropolitan Opera, a new production will update the story to '60s Rat Pack Las Vegas. Lucic stars in them all, and Dudamel conducts at La Scala. Sunday's Bowlers, thus, got an exclusive preview of coming attractions.
But the performance was only a preview. Verdi's blood-and-guts operas of his middle period, which was ushered in by "Rigoletto," can be such gripping theater that a stiff concert performance — as the Bowl's was, with the exception of Lucic — seems a significant compromise.
Still, there were compensations, beginning with Dudamel and the L.A. Phil. In the 16 operas from Verdi's previous dozen "galley years," the composer had often experimented with orchestral effects. But with "Rigoletto," which had its premiere in 1851 in Venice, Verdi demonstrated a new mastery of the orchestra that can be easily overlooked in the opera house.
Dudamel overlooked nothing. In his enthusiastically nuanced approach, he brought out abundant theatrical ambience and drama simply through the characterful playing of the L.A. Phil. The court dances at the beginning were vibrant. Fury and pathos were never understated. Telling instrumental details — such as the muted cello and double bass that capture the creepy mood of a dark street assignation with an assassin, Sparafucile — were given prominence. The storm scene, in which climate change parallels the progress of the murder, was extraordinary realistic until Dudamel rushed the climax.
Lucic's Rigoletto was as raw as an exposed nerve. He showed little tenderness even with his daughter. It was never about her, just him — his rage at his deformity and his fury with his employer, the Duke.
Verdi may not have expected Rigoletto to be so unsympathetic, but Lucic's interpretation was chillingly modern.
He was always ready to sacrifice a beautiful sound and a clean line when inner anguish made that seem artificial. Though him, we saw how a man can be unnervingly drawn to kill when a weapon or means is available.
There was no one else in this mostly little-known cast on Lucic's level. Irina Lungu, a Russian soprano, was on the gloomy side for Gilda. She sang the famous coloratura aria, "Caro Nome," with more care than character or color. But that wasn't uninteresting. She was sadly moving in her duets with Rigoletto and a convincing tragic figure who might really sacrifice herself for the Duke.
The Duke, though, needed a director. Tenor David Lomeli made a stronger impression when he appeared with Dudamel in Verdi's Requiem downtown three years ago. Sunday he sang without much attempt for drama. Even mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera's properly seductive Maddalena failed to get his full attention.
Alexander Tsymbalyuk's dark bass helped make Sparafucile scary, whereas bass Ryan McKinny proved an underpowered Monterone, another vehement father whose daughter is undone by the Duke. The Duke's courtiers were, fortunately, spirited. And the Los Angeles Master Chorale could, as always, be counted upon.
Amplification and video both, this night, were more helpful than they often are. But, again, Lucic was the only cast member who really knew how to take advantage of them. A stage director for opera at the Bowl is, I know, asking too much. The summer season is very busy. But it doesn't hurt to ask.