Review: Quinn Kelsey a World Class Verdi baritone in “Rigoletto” – San Francisco Opera, May 31, 2017

San Francisco Opera began its summer season with a beautifully sung performance of Verdi’s “Rigoletto”, starring Hawai’ian baritone Quinn Kelsey in the opera’s title role.

Quinn Kelsey’s Rigoletto

Kelsey’s Rigoletto perfomance demonstrated a mastery of both the vocal and dramatic requirements of one of the great (if not the greatest) baritone roles of the Italian repertory. Much of the role lies high in the baritone range and requires a vocal weight that defines the “Verdi baritone”, an operatic category which has been in short supply in recent years. Rigoletto has become Kelsey’s “signature” role.

[Below: Quinn Kelsey as Rigoletto; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Kelsey excelled in Rigoletto’s big arias, the introspective Pari siam and heart-wrenching Cortigiani. Those arias, as well as Rigoletto’s explosive introduction to the duet Si vendetta, tremenda vendetta were intensely emotional, with Kelsey displaying not only vocal expressiveness but dramatic insights into the character.

Those insights have obviously been enhanced by Kelsey’s participation in different “Rigoletto” productions that highlight different aspects of the character.  Previously, I had reviewed Kelsey’s performance as Rigoletto in a Lee Blakeley’s imaginative production [Review: Quinn Kelsey, Georgia Jarman – Powerful Performances in Lee Blakeley’s New Santa Fe Opera “Rigoletto” – July 4, 2015]. 

Kelsey has dedicated much of the past half-decade of his career to the role, having performed it in Zurich, London (English National Opera), Santa Fe, Paris (Opéra National de Paris), his hometown Honolulu (Hawai’i Opera Theater) and Frankfurt, Germany. In October 2017, he is scheduled to perform the role again at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Nino Machaidze’s Gilda

Gilda was performed by lyric coloratura soprano Nino Machaidze in her San Francisco Opera debut.

Machaidze, who hails from the Republic of Georgia, has a lustrous voice, well suited to Verdi’s intensely melodic passages. Any Gilda’s vocal performance is judged on the success of her great aria Caro nome. Machaidze’s beautifully expressive, elegantly-controlled vibrato was enlisted to make that aria a performance highlight.

[Below: Nino Machaidze as Gilda; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Although Machaidze is new to audiences at the War Memorial Opera House, she is well-known to the audiences of the Los Angeles Opera. There, Machaidze’s flair for comedy was evident in such roles as Adina [Los Angeles Opera’s Magic Potion: Nino Machaidze in “L’Elisir d’Amore” – September 12, 2009] and Fiorella [Partying in L. A.: Machaidze, Gavanelli Romp in All-Star “Turco in Italia” – Los Angeles Opera, February 19, 2011]

Her admirers obviously include Los Angeles Opera’s General Director Placido Domingo, who conducted her performances as Juliette [Vittorio Grigolo, Nino Machaidze Sublime in Ian Judge’s Romantic, Erotic “Romeo et Juliette” – Los Angeles Opera, November 9, 2011] and co-starred with her Thais [Placido Domingo, Nino Machaidze In a Triumphant “Thaïs” – Los Angeles Opera, May 17, 2014] and Violetta [Review: Nino Machaidze and the Domingos (Placido and Marta) Create a Memorable “La Traviata” – Los Angeles Opera, September 13, 2014.]

Pene Pati’s Duke of Mantua

New Zealand tenor Pene Pati’s performance as the Duke of Mantua was his role debut, and his most important international operatic assignment to date. Understandably tentative in his first notes, Pati soon displayed an expansive lyric voice.

Pati was especially effective in the Duke’s introspective Parmi veder le lagrime followed by the rousing Possente amor mi chiama, the second part of the Duke’s double-aria, for which Pati was entrusted with the often-cut second verse of the cabaletta. 

[Below: The Duke of Mantua (Pene Pati, right) proposes a sexual relationship with the Countess Ceprano (Amina Idris, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Pati was in especially good voice for the Duke’s big final scene, in which he sings Verdi’s most famous tenor aria La donna e mobile, followed immediately by the opening melody of Verdi’s most famous ensemble, the “Rigoletto” Quartet.

Maestro Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera administration demonstrated their full confidence in Pati, a young artist early in his career, having announced him for the role early in 2016 and assigning him all eight performances.

As Pati gains experience in the role, performing it in more darkly-conceived productions that explore the character’s psychology, I would expect his characterization to evolve.

Andrea Silvestrelli’s Sparafucile

The assassin for hire Sparafucile is portrayed by the Italian-born American bass Andrea Silvestrelli, whose deep voice resonates in his first act offer of services to Kelsey’s Rigoletto and the final scene where (after having stated that he observes an assassin’s code of ethics) he double-crosses his customer.

[Below: Andrea Silvestrelli as Sparafucile; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Silvestrelli is always a formidable singing actor, who is alternating all eight performances of Sparafucile in “Rigoletto” with all eight performances of the Commendatore in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”.

An accomplished Wagnerian as well [see Review: Houston Grand Opera’s Spectacular “Götterdämmerung”, April 22, 2017], he will assume important roles in next year’s San Francisco Opera performances of “The Ring of the Nibelungs.]

Zanda Švede’s Maddalena

Latvian soprano Zanda Švede’s warm mezzo and good looks were effective attributes for the role of Maddalena, Sparafucile’s sister and partner in crime. She made a strong impression vocally in the fourth act Quartet.

[Below: Maddalena (Zanda Švede, right) has lured the Duke of Mantua (Pene Pati, left) to what is supposed to be the place of his assassination; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Švede is a recent graduate of the San Francisco Opera’s Adler program, in which she participated over three years. In this performance’s staging, the Maddalena was not as overtly a seductress as one often sees.

Reginald Smith’s Monterone and Other Cast Members

In another auspicious San Francisco Opera debut, Reginald Smith Jr. sang the role of Monterone, the father whose daughter has been defiled by the Duke, and whose curse of the acerbic Rigoletto and subsequent death sentence propels the opera’s action.

Smith’s Monterone displayed all the ferociousness that the relatively brief role requires.

[Below: Reginald Smith, Jr as the Count Monterone; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

A Grand Finals winner of the Metropolitan National Auditions, Smith has honed his craft at the Houston Grand Opera {HGO]. In previous reviews of HGO performances, I have noted and praised Smith in both comic (Blind in Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus”) and dramatic (Marullo in “Rigoletto”) roles.

Michigan baritone Andrew G. Manea (San Francisco Opera debut), New Zealand tenor Amitai Pati (brother of Pene Pati in his San Francisco Opera debut) and Minnesota bass Anthony Reed were impressive respectively as Marullo, Borsa and Ceprano. Egyptian-born New Zealand soprano Amina Edris was Countess Ceprano. California mezzo-soprano (and San Francisco Opera chorister) Buffy Baggott was Giovanna. Choristers Erin Neff and Jere Torkelsen were respectively a Page and an Usher.

Maestro Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra is peerless in the Italian repertory. It responded beautifully to the authoritative conducting of the company’s music director, Maestro Nicola Luisotti.

This is the second San Francisco Opera season in which Maestro Luisotti, has conducted “Rigoletto” [See Lucic, Kurzak, Praiseworthy in Season Opening “Rigoletto” – San Francisco Opera, September 7, 2012 and Vratogna, Shagimuratova, Chacon-Cruz, Luisotti: “Rigoletto” Magnifico – San Francisco Opera, September 8, 2012].

I was also able to attend a “Rigoletto” performance led by Luisotti at the Opéra National de Paris [ Review: A “Rigoletto” Surprise in Paris: Ludovic Tézier Subs in Title Role in Claus Guth’s Production with Fabiano, Peretyatko, Luisotti – May 5, 2016] and observed first hand the European affection for his exciting conducting.

Notes on the production

The production, built around Texas designer Michael Yeargan’s sets that are now 20 years old, replaced Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s imaginative 1973 production. Ponnelle’s production had been one of the triumphs of Kurt Herbert Adler’s long reign as San Francisco Opera’s general director, and its replacement (and destruction) was not universally popular among San Francisco Opera patrons.

[Below: Tenor Pene Pati is the Duke of Mantua, surrounded by Michael Yeargan’s 1997 production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The Yeargan sets were deemed to have advantage over the fanciful Ponnelle production. The latter had four separate stage settings for the Duke’s palace, Rigoletto’s home, the Duke’s bedroom’s antechamber, and Sparafucile’s Inn, each change requiring intensive involvement of stagehands.

Unit sets may be less labor-intensive than sets that are conceived around the stage directions (or production designer’s ideas), but unit sets can impose theatrical sacrifices. Obviously, the two scenes in the ducal palace can be merged, but to accommodate palatial rooms with Rigoletto’s modest apartment and an inn on a desolate road requires some conceptual liberties.

I’ve never been satisfied with either of two Yeargan attempts at synthesizing the four scenes. (For my review of another Yeargan “Rigoletto”, see Power Verdi: Gavanelli Leads Distinguished, World Class “Rigoletto” Cast – Dallas Opera, March 30, 2011.)

California costume designer Constance Hoffman created the 1997 costumes. California designer Gary Marder was responsible for the lighting design. Lawrence Pech was choreographer, Dave Maier was fight choreographer.

British director Rob Kearley is the latest artist to take on the opera’s staging using the Yeargan sets. Within the sets’ restrictions, Kearley presents a credible, nicely paced staging, albeit one that dwells more in the light than the darkness that these twisted characters seem to inhabit.

The San Francisco Opera has “themed” the three operas of its summer season (that includes Puccini’s “La Boheme” and “Don Giovanni”) as the “Summer of Love 2017” (as an homage to the 1967’s hippie lovefest). For “Rigoletto”, which often attracts edgy, sexually provocative productions (in earlier days even on the War Memorial Opera House stage), the current staging earns a safe PG.


I enthusiastically recommend the cast and musical performance for both the veteran opera-goer and person new to opera, with special praise for Quinn Kelsey’s world class performance as Rigoletto.