ASR Opera ~~ Political Incorrection at San Jose’s California Theater

By Jeff Dunn

In 1832, Victor Hugo had a play produced in Paris about a serial rapist and murderer, a brother-sister pair of cutthroats, a gang of kidnappers, and a hunchbacked provocateur who berates everyone and imprisons his daughter. All of these characters escape the law. Is this politically correct? It wasn’t in 1832 when it was banned in France as an insult to the monarchy, nor was it in 1851 when Verdi and his librettist Piave retold the same story.

Hugo’s rapist was the King of France, who hung the Mona Lisa in his bathroom, and the play was called The King Has Fun. Verdi and Piave squeaked by Austrian censors in Venice by making all the characters Mantuan instead of French, and naming their opera Rigoletto. Far from being banned, the opera has spread throughout the world like Covid, its many jaunty tunes inoculating audiences into enjoying themselves while at the same time being reminded of how abuse of power is the chief ill of civilization.

… Conductor Jorge Parodi did a fine job of pacing the proceedings …

Among the range of interpretations for this constantly reproduced staple of the repertoire, San Jose Opera’s take is somberly traditional. Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s dark and musty costumes evoke the 16th century. Steven C. Kemp’s sets are nondescript black and dingy, except Rigoletto’s brilliant white-and-red home or, instead, keep, that is supposed to protect his innocent daughter from the Duke of Mantua and his court. Director Dan Wallace Miller adds two gruesome deviations from the norm: Rigoletto’s congenital hunchback is instead a hideous red scar branding his bald pate, and the Duke has syphilis.

Count Ceprano (Glenn Healy, back center) and courtiers have no pity for the jester Rigoletto (Eugene Brancoveanu, front center) in Opera San José’s production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto”. Photo credit: David Allen

Performances fit well into Wallace’s gloomy vision. Eugene Brancoveanu’s obnoxious grizzly bear of a Rigoletto makes the courtiers and the audience wince, but his notes are spot on. At the conclusion, his grief is a Niagran force of nature. Edward Graves, a newcomer to the role of the Duke, also fits the director’s tone with his accurate voice, despondent more than joyfully playing the field. Melissa Sondhi, as Gilda, conveys innocence as puzzlement while negotiating her complex music.

The Duke of Mantua (Edward Graves, left) and his jester Rigoletto (Eugene Brancoveanu, right) at work. Photo credit: David Allen

Standout performances were contributed by Philip Skinner as the wronged Count Monterone and Ashraf Sewailam as the principled murderer-for-hire Sparafucile. Melisa Bonetti Luna’s expressive acting was a great plus, though, in this reviewer’s opinion, her voice was occasionally overshadowed by others. Conductor Jorge Parodi did a fine job of pacing the proceedings. Most impressive was the Opera Chorus of courtiers and kidnappers, meticulously prepared by Johannes Löhner.

The jester Rigoletto (Eugene Brancoveanu, center) entertains the Duke of Mantua’s courtiers in Opera San José’s production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” playing thru March 3, 2024 at the California Theatre in downtown San Jose. Photo credit: David Allen

While Miller’s approach is undoubtedly defensible, I wonder if Verdi’s message would be better conveyed by even greater present-day incorrectness. If a director pretended to endorse the duke’s and courtier’s predations with cheery carryings-on and bright colors, if women happily allowed men to have their way, that murder was a trip to the nearest 7-11 in a Death of Stalin milieu, maybe some in the audience might question power structures more strongly.


ASR’s Classical Music Section Editor, Jeff Dunn, is a retired educator and project manager who’s been writing music and theater reviews for Bay Area and national journals since 1995. He is a San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle member and the National Association of Composers, USA. His musical Castle Happy (co-author John Freed), about Marion Davies and W.R. Hearst, received a festival production at the Altarena Theater in 2017. His opera, Finding Medusa, with librettist Madeline Puccioni, was completed in January 2023. Jeff has won photography prizes and is also a judge for the Northern California Council of Camera Clubs.

Based on a play byVictor Hugo
Libretto byFrancesco Maria Piave
Stage DirectionDan Wallace Miller
Producing CompanySan Jose Opera
Production DatesThru Mar 3rd
Production AddressCalifornia Theater -
345 S First St, San Jose, CA 95113
Telephone(408) 437-4450
Tickets$50- $195
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?No