Recent music venues here in the City Diff have been promoting those darn melodic earworms that do not go gently. Instance that epic series of screenings of The Ring under the splendid sponsorship of the Wagner Society. Eventually the E-flat major Rhein-musik (Dah-dee-Dah-dee-Dah-dee-DAH) departed the local brain pan. Then arrives the Santa Fe Opera's sparkling Daughter of the Regiment, so now it's "rataplan rataplan rataplan" till the cows come home. And ever since last Friday's Rigoletto, the record is stuck at—you guessed it—La donna è mobile. Oof.

Pay attention here: That particular tune carries a history. During rehearsals for Rigoletto's 1851 Venice premiere, Verdi withheld the super-catchy aria from tenor and cast until the last possible moment. He'd predicted its outrageous popularity and hated that audiences at La Fenice might hear the ditty first as bawled out by every gondolier and street-corner ballad-singer in La Serenissima.

That's far from the only significant historical/musicological footnote à propos the creation of Rigoletto. For a really excellent discussion of several such, sit in on one of Oliver Prezant's scintillating pre-show talks in SFO's Stieren Hall. But allow a further footnote: Verdi insisted, for most of his operas, on finding a tinta musicale, or musical coloration, for the work-in-progress, an essential "something" that defines the tone or feeling or atmosphere for the piece.

Offhand, this sounds rather airy-fairy. Verdi thought not. Given for-sure censorship problems posed by Rigoletto's plot, his timid librettist Piave suggested that Verdi ditch the piece entirely. Not a chance, said Verdi. He'd found his tinta, and that was that. Just listen up.

There's the chorus—all male and more than a touch creepy, especially in the storm scene. There's that sinister, surprising, insinuating dialogue between Rigoletto and Sparafucile. There's the lack of any positive, even semi-heroic character (if you don't count Monterone). The opera's atmosphere? Dark, degenerate, mocking, airless. The cynical power of La donna è mobile can only be understood against this suffocating background. More grimly unpleasant operas may lurk in the repertory, but it's hard to think of very many.

So why make it happen? Because Verdi had a nose for sure-fire literary texts to opera-fy: Shakespeare, Schiller and, here, Victor Hugo's Le roi s'amuse or The King Has His Bit of Fun. A famously scandalous play, of course, but in Verdi's hands, a vehicle for remarkable characterization and revolutionary musical invention. We may not like the stage action, speaking in the moralistic abstract. But we love it in the opera house, speaking in the audible concrete.

And now, finally, speaking of the SFO's new production of Rigoletto, there's much indeed to love. I'll get around to more dire aspects of the show, but for now—stand back. Quinn Kelsey as the titular hunchback makes the most sensational SFO male debut in not-so-recent memory. Big voice, sure, but there's control and nuance and intelligence and style to spare. It's easy enough to talk about acting with the voice, but in the truest sense, it's a rarity. Withal, only a few male superstars pop to mind, George London and the late Jon Vickers among them. Nowadays, Gerald Finley and Simon Keenlyside join this exclusive company.

Please include, then, Kelsey among those hard-to-find baritones with all the chops for Verdian finesse. When he launched Pari siamo!, we knew we were in for a ride. His duets with Gilda broke our hearts with their sympathy and tenderness, without a single touch of indulgent sentimentality. He even managed a terrifying Cortigiani while sitting, sitting, on the floor.

Georgia Jarman's Gilda matched Kelsey's stylistic elegance note for note. Her transparent Cara nome had all the acuti in place, sure, but Jarman's vocal purity and effortless legato, plus her authentic prolonged trill, thrilled. Those ethereal tones in the final scene seemed heaven-sent. Bruce Sledge made a stalwart Duke with a solid, true upper register. His voice lacks much color, though, and his stage demeanor is more stolid than sensual.

As Sparafucile, Peixin Chen provided a dark and chunky bass, although as directed, he's more seedy than scary. The Maddalena, Nicole Piccolomini, contributed a dusky, well-focused near-contralto. I especially liked Robert Pomakov's Monterone—an imposing paternal presence, clearly a near-relation to Mozart's Commendatore. Susanne Sheston's male chorus sang splendidly despite looking oh-so-bedraggled.

Besides Kelsey, conductor Jader Bignamini, in his American debut, scored a palpable hit. While making much of the score's terrific blood-and-thundering, he rendered, precisely, the music's delicate pathos and moved the fine SFO orchestra swiftly through to Rigoletto's final wailing maledizione!

Unhappily, SFO's production, under Lee Blakeley's direction, is as visually inept as it is vocally splendid. His program notes rattle on about Risorgimento complexities without much onstage evidence of anything historical or political, except for shallow tut-tut-what-another-orgy staging. A disheveled chorus simply piles onto and out of the scenery, gawping about when not singing. Said scenery, by Adrian Linford, resembles a tossed salad of rickety staircases and Caligari-esque angularities on an overworked revolve. It's less a set than an explosion in the scene shop. Linford's costumes come straight out of a Samuel Beckett ragbag.

But remember that, ultimately, opera's about three things: voices, voices and voices. Just rest your eyes, open your ears and bask in Verdi's glorious tinta.


Rigoletto
8:30 pm Friday, July 10 & Aug. 28,
Wed., July 15 & Aug. 19,
Tues. Aug. 4 & 25, Sat., Aug. 15, $40-$300
Santa Fe Opera House
301 Opera Drive,
986-5900