`Rigoletto' gets fresh staging. New York City Opera prepares to televise its new production

The New York City Opera has much riding on its new production of Verdi's ``Rigoletto.'' For one thing, the company is relying fully on its designated stars to make this opera succeed. And for another, Tito Capobianco's new staging, which will be seen nationwide on PBS's ``Live From Lincoln Center'' Sept. 21, will probably be around for a long time; it replaces a venerable Frank Corsaro production that served the company well for nearly two decades. As for design, City Opera stagings have had a rather traditional profile for as long as I can remember: The best of the Corsaro productions were not startlingly avant-garde or even remotely representative of what is going on in Europe today. (For a hint of European adventurousness, one must look to the new Los Angeles Opera or the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which this fall presents a Peter Sellars production of Wagner's ``Tannh"auser.'')

Capobianco used to drape his traditionalism in creatively physical productions that stressed exciting movement and audaciously theatrical flourishes. This time around, it is impossible to tell what he is up to. Granted, it is challenging in these unbridled times to meaningfully suggest the brand of shocking decadence needed to bring the corrupt Mantuan court to life. Nevertheless, Capobianco's attempt at suggesting decadence consists of lots of ``oohing'' and ``ahing'' to accompany muggish ogling and leering.

In general, the staging lacked freshness of viewpoint and boldness of execution. The characters behaved and interacted in stock operatic fashion. Rigoletto, the embittered, hunchbacked court jester, mercifully had a less pronounced hump than usual, but then lurched and staggered in the usual manner. Gilda was a bit bolder than is often the case because Faith Esham brought to the role such a strong dramatic and visual presence. The Duke was the standard operatic rake. And so it went. The character roles were all rather poorly acted.

It would be easy to blame much of what goes wrong in this production on Carl Toms's peculiar sets. The first-act scenery looks like a parody of a Las Vegas hotel lobby in which a grotesque floor show is taking place.

A three-times-life-size ``marble'' statue of a semi-naked Duke dominates faux-marble columns, staircase, and a starscape mural. Rigoletto's home gives new meaning to the term modest; Sparafucile's is squalid.

One cannot help feeling that these sets will not prove particularly photogenic for the coming telecast, but at least there will be the musical contributions, which are considerably more effective.

I am particularly impressed with Elio Boncompagni's conducting. He approaches the uncut score with fondness and with an alertness to the dramatic sweep of Verdi's remarkable creation. He allows his singers all the traditional interpolations they want. His is the sort of caring, Italianate operatic conducting we don't hear much in America these days, and it's all the more welcome for being so uncomplicated and effective.

None of the performers were in top form. In the title role, Frederick Burchinal (who will be replaced by Brent Ellis on the telecast) was the least interesting.

Miss Esham's Gilda is graceful, forceful, full of lovely vocal moments, and capable of ringing high E-flats. Though Esham's soprano has never been particularly fluid, she is a communicative, sympathetic actress. The only jarring element is her tendency to interpolate high notes even in passages where that isn't appropriate.

Richard Leech is now City Opera's star tenor. The role of the Duke should be ideal for him, but it taxes his voice rather noticeably, with his penchant for taking unwritten high notes. The production seems to stifle the ardor and spontaneity of his usually marvelous acting style.

Thor Eckert Jr. is the Monitor's music critic.

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