MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Maria Stuarda at Seattle Opera: Donizetti Fever Rages on from Coast to Coast


Joyce El-Khoury in the title role of Maria Stuarda; image credit: Jacob Lucas

My review of Maria Stuarda at Seattle Opera — where soprano Joyce El-Khoury has made a spectacular company debut — is now posted on Bachtrack:

Tudormania continues its invasion of America. Later this month at the Met, Sondra Radvanovsky will have added the third and final jewel to her Donizetti crown when she sings Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux. And across the continent, Seattle Opera has been presenting its company debut of Maria Stuarda (1835).

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Filed under: bel canto, directors, Donizetti, review, Seattle Opera

Arresting Aristos Make for a Fine Figaro

Shenyang (Figaro) and Nuccia Focile (Susanna) (c) Jacob Lucas

Shenyang (Figaro) and Nuccia Focile (Susanna)
(c) Jacob Lucas

Aidan Lang, head of Seattle Opera, reveals his talents as a stage director in a fresh and engaging interpretation of Mozart’s comic masterpiece. 

The buzz around Seattle Opera’s new Figaro is that it offers audiences here their first chance to see company chief Aidan Lang in his guise as stage director. This production originated to much acclaim in 2010 at New Zealand Opera, which Lang helmed until 2013. The current season is his second since succeeding Speight Jenkins as general director at Seattle Opera.

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Filed under: Mozart, review, Seattle Opera

Seattle Opera’s Nabucco Falls Flat

The cast and orchestra of Seattle Opera's Nabucco. © Philip Newton

The cast and orchestra of Seattle Opera’s Nabucco. © Philip Newton

My Bachtrack review is now live.
(I think I managed to catch all the autocorrects that
were turning “Nabucco” into “Nabisco.”)

On paper, Seattle Opera’s new production of Nabucco sounded enticing. General Director Aidan Lang generated buzz about the ‘innovative staging concept’ we should anticipate for the company’s first-ever presentation of Verdi’s third opera. Seattle Opera had meanwhile undertaken a rebranding effort that included a design facelift of its website to emphasise large, bold visuals — with billboard-style tags announcing Nabucco: ‘BETRAYED’ ‘TWISTED’ “EPIC’.

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Filed under: directors, review, Seattle Opera, Verdi

“Musik ist eine heilige Kunst”

After Kate Lindsey’s superb performance as The Composer in Seattle Opera’s Ariadne auf NaxosI just can’t get Strauss’s music out of my head.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: “He who wishes to live must surpass himself, metamorphose, forget. And yet, persist, not forget, be faithful – that is what everyone’s dignity means.”

Filed under: Kate Lindsey, Seattle Opera, Strauss

Seattle Opera: Buffing the Buffa in Ariadne

Kate Lindsey (The Composer) and Sarah Coburn (Zerbinetta); photo (c) Elise Bakketun

Kate Lindsey (The Composer) and Sarah Coburn (Zerbinetta); photo (c) Elise Bakketun

My review of Ariadne auf Naxos has now been posted on Bachtrack:

At the end of Seattle Opera’s previous production – a refreshing new staging of Handel’s Semele – the ill-fated heroine is burned by Jupiter’s glorious fire, but the god Bacchus emerges from her destruction: “born as my mother expired in the flames”, as Hugo von Hofmannsthal has the wine god explain in his libretto for Ariadne auf Naxos.

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Filed under: directors, review, Seattle Opera, Strauss

A Ravishingly Entertaining Semele Alights in Seattle

Brenda Rae (Semele) and Alek Shrader (Jupiter); (c) Elise Bakketun

Brenda Rae (Semele) and Alek Shrader (Jupiter); (c) Elise Bakketun

My review of Seattle Opera’s latest production is now live on (Happy 330th, George Frideric!)

It’s amusing to imagine the pitch Handel must have used to convince the presenters of Covent Garden’s oratorio concert series for the 1744 Lenten season to back his latest creation. Why not schedule his theatrical treatment of a myth that portrays the head of the pagan gods setting his human mistress up in a pleasure palace? After all, the moral is clearly stated at the end: “Nature to each allots his proper sphere”. Still, you can’t send your audience home on a such a grim choral note, so all the more reason to end things with a cheerful ode to the powers of Bacchus!

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Filed under: directors, Handel, review, Seattle Opera

Seattle Opera Announces New Season

Gordon Hawkins as  Nabucco

Gordon Hawkins as Nabucco

Seattle Opera has recently taken to releasing its Big News about the coming season on New Year’s Day. So here it is: the first season showing the imprint of new General Director Aidan Lang.

There’s a welcome return to five full-scale productions — along with a brief sixth offering, in the form of two performances of a new commission titled An American Dream.

Overall the lineup hews to long-established patterns, but with some more daring choices on the theatrical side. I’m especially delighted to see his fellow stage director Christopher Alden in the lineup for Dutchman after an absurdly long absence from the Seattle stage. And eager to experience Lang’s own work as a director (Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro).

Here’s the full press release:

Company Presents First Season of Aidan Lang’s Vision
Year-Round Opera Returns in Seattle

SEATTLE—It’s a new era at Seattle Opera. The company today announced its 2015/16 season, the first to be presented by General Director Aidan Lang, and a return to full-year programming with a total of six operas, including new productions and a world premiere. Under Lang’s leadership, the company hopes to serve the community through the magic of theater and music in McCaw Hall, and in learning and engagement programs across the Pacific Northwest.

“We are excited to offer a season that is so varied, both in terms of repertoire and presentation style,” Lang said. “In addition to a world premiere, we have in Nabucco and Mary Stuart two great, highly dramatic works that have never before been seen in Seattle. And it is especially pleasing to maintain our Wagnerian credentials with a compelling, new-to-Seattle production of The Flying Dutchman. I know our audiences are in for a thrilling ride.”

The 2015/16 season includes two company premieres: Nabucco (Verdi) and Mary Stuart (Donizetti); a world premiere: An American Dream (composed by Jack Perla with libretto by Jessica Murphy Moo) conceived from the company’s community storytelling initiative, the Belonging(s) Project; and new-to-the-company productions of The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart), The Pearl Fishers (Bizet) and The Flying Dutchman (Wagner). In addition to mainstage performances, programs that serve the community are at the heart of Lang’s vision. In the 2015/16 season, Seattle Opera launches the Flight project, a multi-year series of programs and events that includes the commission of a trilogy of new operas for family audiences and in-school performances. Flight is modeled on the three-year Our Earth project, which to-date has served 31,893 people in more than 158 performances.

The mainstage season kicks off in August 2015 with a new production of an opera that’s never before been presented in Seattle: Nabucco, Verdi’s first masterpiece. The power and grandeur of the Old Testament story will come alive with innovative staging designed to bring the audience right into the action and closer to the music, notably the famous chorus “Va, pensiero.” Gordon Hawkins returns in Verdi’s first great baritone role, the King of Babylon. Mary Elizabeth Williams takes on the challenge of his fearsome daughter, Abigaille. Christian Van Horn makes his Seattle debut as Zaccaria, the High Priest. Russell Thomas returns as Ismaele, and Jamie Barton makes her Seattle Opera debut as Fenena. Italian conductor Carlo Montanaro returns following Verdi’s Attila (2012) and more recently, The Consul (2014). François Racine, who won Seattle Opera’s Artist of the Year Award for directing the acclaimed Canadian Opera Company production of Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung (2009), returns to direct a new production with sets by Seattle Opera’s own Robert Schaub (The Magic Flute, 2011); projections by Robert Bonniol, MODE Studios; and costumes by Ginette Grenier.

Running concurrently with Nabucco in August is the world premiere of An American Dream—an opera based on real stories from the Pacific Northwest. The heartbreak of World War II binds strangers together after a Japanese American family is forcibly removed from where they live on an island in Puget Sound, and the new residents slowly piece together the history of their home. Morgan Smith (Seattle Opera Young Artists Program graduate) returns to create the role of Jim, an American soldier married to Eva, a German Jew who has fled the Nazis and moved to the Pacific Northwest. Making their Seattle Opera debuts are D’Ana Lombard as Eva and, as the Japanese American family, Nina Yoshida Nelsen (Hiroko Kimura), Adam Lau (Makoto Kimura), and Hae Ji Chang (Setsuko Kimura). Conductor Judith Yan makes her Seattle Opera debut. Peter Kazaras, longtime Seattle Opera director, singer and former head of the company’s Young Artists Program, returns to direct following The Consul.

An American Dream is inspired by stories from Seattle Opera’s Belonging(s) Project (,­ a community storytelling initiative where participants were asked to consider: “If you had to leave your home today and couldn’t return, what would you want to take with you? Why is that object, that memory, or that connection to your past so important?”

The simultaneous presentation of An American Dream with Nabucco is in itself a compelling artistic choice, and a deliberate pairing by the company’s general director.

“Every now and then in life, things suddenly fall neatly into place; and so it was with An American Dream,” Lang said. “The workshop process of An American Dream revealed an unexpected resonance with one of the key themes of Nabucco, which we had already planned. So we jumped at the opportunity to present the two works in parallel. In attending both operas, our audiences will inevitably have an even richer human experience than they would by seeing each piece in isolation.”

Next, Bizet’s hypnotic love story The Pearl Fishers heats up the fall. Internationally beloved designer Zandra Rhodes returns following her Artist of the Year Award costuming Seattle Opera’s The Magic Flute (2011) to create a grand vision of exotic splendor and vibrant color with her sets and costumes. Maureen McKay, a Seattle Opera Young Artists Program graduate who has gone on to impressive achievements in Europe, makes her mainstage debut as the beautiful priestess Leïla. John Tessier and Brett Polegato return to sing the two men who love her, Nadir and Zurga. Jonathan Lemalu makes his Seattle Opera debut as Nourabad. Both stage director Andrew Sinclair and conductor Emmanuel Joel-Hornak make their Seattle Opera debuts.

During the holiday season, Seattle Opera’s Education Department will deepen its collaborative partnership with Seattle Symphony. The Youth Opera Chorus will again perform with the symphony for its holiday concert on December 15, 2015 at Benaroya Hall. Additionally, the two companies are introducing a new pilot program: an in-school partnership between Opera Time (musical storytelling that fosters literacy for kindergarten-second grade) and Link Up: Seattle Symphony. Link Up allows third-fifth graders the opportunity to “join the orchestra” in a highly participatory program in which they learn to sing and play recorder in the classroom, and perform with the symphony from their seats.

Then, in the new year, Seattle Opera presents The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart’s endlessly enjoyable comedy of manners. General Director Aidan Lang returns to stage directing to mount his own production, which The New Zealand Herald called “engrossing, astute and unmissable.” Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang makes his Seattle Opera debut as Figaro, partnered by Nuccia Focile as Susanna. Morgan Smith returns as Count Almaviva, and Bernarda Bobro debuts as his forgiving wife. In the other cast, Aubrey Allicock as Figaro weds Talise Trevigne as Susanna. The ensemble also features Arthur Woodley, Steven Cole, Karin Mushegain, and Seattle Opera Young Artist alumni Caitlin Lynch, Elizabeth Pojanowski, and Deborah Nansteel. Gary Thor Wedow returns following Don Giovanni (2014) to conduct.

A Seattle Opera premiere, Mary Stuart takes the stage next in February 2016. Based on Friedrich Schiller’s brilliant play, Mary Stuart dramatizes the battle of titanic wills between Queen Elizabeth I of England and her Catholic cousin Mary Stuart Queen of Scotland. In extravagant period costumes, these two iconic royals clash in a haunting story of jealousy, pity, doubt, menace, exaltation and remorse. Christine Rice and Joyce El-Khoury share the honors as Donizetti’s doomed queen, with Mary Elizabeth Williams and Keri Alkema as Queen Elizabeth I, her hated rival. Baritones Weston Hurt and Michael Todd Simpson appear as the scheming courtiers Talbot and Cecil. Carlo Montanaro is at the podium and Kevin Newbury makes his Seattle Opera debut as director.

Finally, the company concludes the season doing what it does best—Wagner! In May 2016, several of Seattle’s favorite Wagnerians return to sing The Flying Dutchman, a tale of a cursed sea captain who can be redeemed only by true love. Greer Grimsley and Alfred Walker return as the Dutchman; Alwyn Mellor and Wendy Bryn Harmer sing Senta, who will break the doomed mariner’s curse. Nikolai Schukoff and David Danholt (winner of the 2014 International Wagner Competition) sing Erik, and Daniel Sumegi returns as Daland. A new production for Seattle audiences, this compelling and stylish show from the Canadian Opera Company brings together a visionary creative team in director Christopher Alden, set/costume designer Allen Moyer, and lighting designer Anne Militello. Sebastian Lang-Lessing, who made his Seattle Opera debut during the company’s 50th Anniversary Celebration in August 2014, returns to the podium.

Inspired by the fate of the Dutchman, as well as the plight of the Israelites in Nabucco, Seattle Opera and the University of Washington College of Arts and Sciences will launch the first in an annual series of programs, performances, and events that will explore the theme of exile in the 2015/6 season. Together, with experts from a variety of disciplines in history, philosophy, literature, and the performing arts, audiences will extend and enhance their performance experience through multiple perspectives on historical and contemporary representations of exile. Programming will be offered in conjunction with performances of Wagner’s work in May 2016.

Filed under: music news, Seattle Opera

The Rake’s Revels: Don Giovanni Parties It Up in Seattle

Photo (c) Elise Bakketun

Photo (c) Elise Bakketun

Here’s my Bachtrack review of the current Don Giovanni revival in Seattle:

Mozart’s drama about the legendary rake’s egress launches the first season under Seattle Opera’s new general director, Aidan Lang. However, the production originated here in 2007, and the current revival had of course been scheduled well in advance. In other words, it makes no statement about the new Lang era but is instead a reverberation of the Speight Jenkins years.

This production mines the comic possibilities inherent in the essentially picaresque, stop-start narrative pieced together by Da Ponte. The Overture, with its apocalyptic opening section introducing a cheerful, buffa main course, has always posed a musical conundrum, the solution to which, as in Tristan und Isolde, remains deferred until the end of the opera. Yet in Seattle’s McCaw Hall, those foreboding first chords have the effect rather of parentheses, of a statement that’s easily shunted aside until the topic comes up again, in rather nonsequitur fashion, during the grand finale.

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Filed under: Mozart, review, Seattle Opera

The Cruelty of Strangers

Menotti's The Consul at Seattle Opera; photo by Elise Bakketun

Menotti’s The Consul at Seattle Opera; photo by Elise Bakketun

Here’s my City Arts preview of the production of Gin Carlo Menotti’s The Consul, opening this weekend at Seattle Opera:

It may seem odd for an opera company to be cagey about revealing the ending of a work written more than a half-century ago. But Seattle Opera is holding the cards very tight to its chest when it comes to The Consul by Gian Carlo Menotti. Seattle Opera’s production, which opens this weekend, marks the company’s first staging of the work and will certainly be the first live experience of it for many in the audience. Premiered in March 1950, The Consul enjoyed a flash of glory when it transferred to a Broadway theatre that year, playing for some 286 performances.

Set in a grey, unidentified totalitarian state in the middle of the 20th century, The Consul revolves around the plight of Magda Sorel and her husband John, a dissident who is forced, shortly after the opera begins, to go into hiding as an enemy of the state. Magda desperately attempts to negotiate the dehumanizing bureaucracy of the state Consulate to arrange for legal emigration.

There are obvious tinges of Kafka and other poets of modern alienation as Magda repeatedly tries to satisfy the baffling documentation requirements demanded by the Consul’s office. The secret police stalk her, closing in on her husband’s whereabouts. In the final scene, after they arrest John at the Consul’s office, “it comes down to whether the secretary will break the rules and do the right thing…” Or at least that’s how the cliffhanger synopsis on Seattle Opera’s website describes the ending.

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Filed under: directors, opera, Seattle Opera

The Cursed Clown Returns: Seattle Opera’s Rigoletto

Marco Vratogna; photo by Elise Bakketun

Rigoletto (Marco Vratogna) at work in the court; photo by Elise Bakketun

It’s no surprise that general director Speight Jenkins opted to reprise Seattle Opera’s production of Rigoletto, staged by the American director Linda Brovsky, for his farewell season (which also coincides with the company’s 50th anniversary). Introduced a decade ago, this Rigoletto is of fine vintage and remains hands-down the most satisfying Verdi production I’ve seen at Seattle Opera (a close tie being the Falstaff directed by Peter Kazaras).

Seattle can hardly be called a Mecca for Regie opera in the usual sense in which that term is bandied about. But that doesn’t mean it’s a haven for boringly conservative “traditional” stagings. The company actually is director-centric in that it places a high premium on theatrical values: it prizes directors who can contribute a sensitively close reading so that musical and dramatic meanings enhance each other. (Jenkins is, after all, a Wagnerian, and a good deal of the success of Seattle’s Ring has hinged on director Stephen Wadsworth’s ability to do just that.)

Rigoletto is certainly an opera amenable to directorial transposition, and the concept applied by Brovsky and the design team is to set the swiftly moving plot in the lurid “court” of a Benito Mussolini-like duce in the 1930s, at the height of Italian fascism. Rigoletto serves as a kind of spy who can feed him information and of course also as his procurer. The decadence of the duce/Duke of Mantua and his cronies turns out to be an expression of their unchecked power — the way they “loosen up” when not arrogantly terrorizing the citizens into submission.

Marco Vratogna as Rigoletto, Nadine Sierra as Gilda, Sarah Larsen as Maddalena and Francesco Demuro as the Duke of Mantua; photo by Elise Bakketun

l to r: Marco Vratogna (Rigoletto), Nadine Sierra (Gilda), Sarah Larsen (Maddalena), Francesco Demuro (Duke of Mantua); photo by Elise Bakketun

Robert Dahlstrom’s sets and Thomas C. Hase’s lighting dramatically contrast the two poles of Rigoletto‘s world. The palace, thrumming with lust, is sleekly decked out with the spoils of art (a version of Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina sculpture serves as a prop littered with dirty champagne glasses), while the dimly lit, claustrophobic backstreets where the jester lives with his daughter Gilda are creeping with menace, an underworld that mirrors the cynical brutality of the rulers — only without their stylish veneer and classical trappings. The scenery of the last act, with its storm-swept cityscape across a river, is especially evocative. Marie Anne Chiment’s elegant gowns and chic suits make exceptionally eye-catching costumes.

All this provides more than a mere backdrop against which the familiar melodrama plays out. By anchoring what otherwise might seem a far-fetched series of unfortunate coincidences in a repulsive political and moral order, the fascist setting pushes buttons. When the nobleman Monterone reproaches the Duke for “seducing” his daughter — it’s clear that she’s been traumatized — Brovsky shows the old man wearing a yarmulke and dragged off to prison on the Duke’s orders: a voice of protest silenced by anti-Semitic thuggery. (Could this explain the family secrets Rigoletto keeps hidden from Gilda, including the mystery of her mother?)

Rigoletto will find himself in the same position as Monterone when he mourns the ruin of Gilda. The opera’s denouement is fueled by the jester’s plan for vengeance, his realistic version of the curse pronounced by Monterone. Marco Vratogna portrays an uncommonly sympathetic Rigoletto, making for a harrowing final scene. The problem is that he’s essentially too “nice” for the production’s milieu — particularly in the opera’s opening scene, where Verdi shows his cynical persona at work. The less-than-imposing curse delivered by Donovan Singletary’s Monterone should be the climactic focus of the scene, but the jester’s reaction barely registers.

Vratogna’s baritone admirably balances sturdiness and lyricism — it can be thrilling in a cabaletta wrap-up — but on opening night didn’t display the variety of colors essential to making this character vivid. You need to experience Rigoletto’s jabbing viciousness for his final sorrow to earn its full impact. Vratogna’s pivotal second-act solo lacked the differentiated phrasing Verdi calls for when Rigoletto, accustomed to his role as a performer, at last gives vent to his rage but then quickly changes tack to plead for his daughter.

Francesco Demuro as the playboy Duke; photo by Elise Bakketun

Francesco Demuro as the playboy Duke; photo by Elise Bakketun

A similar drawback applies to Francesco Demuro’s depiction of the Duke. A lyric tenor with a gorgeous command of legato, Demuro brings out the careless playboy side of the role quite convincingly. It’s just that he’s too suave, too effortlessly mellifluous to generate the effect of a feared, ruthless leader. In fact, the emotional depth Demuro gave to his richly sung “Ella fu mi rapita!” scene (the Duke’s most interesting solo and the one eclipsed by the popularity of his other two famous numbers) ends up jarring against the rest of his characterization. The Duke’s moment of interiority of course goes nowhere — and that’s one dramaturgical lapse Brovsky’s smart production doesn’t solve.

On the other hand, the really, really dark side of this Rigoletto is supplied in spades by Andrea Silvestrelli as the assassin-for-hire Sparafucile. His bass sounds as fathomless as an unlit, echoing cave, and Silvestrelli telegraphs noirish menace with just a flick and boot crush of his cigarette. As his sister and partner-in-crime Maddalena, Sarah Larsen channels a touch of Carmen, working out an entire character transformation in the course of her one scene.

Andrea Silvestrelli (Sparafucile); photo by Elise Bakketun

Andrea Silvestrelli (Sparafucile); photo by Elise Bakketun

But no one else matched the art of transition displayed by American soprano Nadine Sierra, making her Seattle Opera debut as Gilda. It’s not hard to discern what wowed the judges when they chose her as the youngest-ever winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Councils a few years ago. Sierra — and you’ll most definitely want to pay attention to her name — has an alluring, immediately identifiable voice that encompasses dark-hued deep notes as well as spectacularly spun, floating light notes at the very top of her range.

And that’s only a starting point for Sierra: her remarkable control allows her to venture an exciting variety in her phrasing. Her characterization complements this vocal richness: Sierra shows Gilda not as the innocent “tabula rasa” we usually see at first but as a loving daughter who already has desires of her own. The pain of her humiliation in the second act is so palpable it’s hard to watch. And her Gilda’s persistent attachment to the Duke isn’t a sentimental weakness but a desperate attempt to salvage some kind of meaning within the opera’s heartless environment. An especially effective touch is the shudder of terror she reveals even after she’s resolved to sacrifice herself.

Nadine Sierra; photo by Elise Bakketun

Nadine Sierra; photo by Elise Bakketun

Another indispensable contribution is made by conductor Riccardo Frizza, doing the best work I’ve heard from him. The orchestra itself wasn’t on quite the same level on opening night, and some sloppy intonation crept into the mix, but the musicians are clearly responsive to the conductor’s reading of the score. Frizza understands that these immortal melodies get their punch precisely from the contexts Verdi creates. As a milestone experiment on the way toward the mature Verdi, Rigoletto is all about restyling the conventions of Italian opera within a context of breathless, dramatically compelling momentum.

Frizza was able to stretch a phrase here and there, effortlessly accommodating the singers, but all the while maintaining the needed tension. He also has a terrific ear for the telling, sometimes ironic details Verdi uses to punctuate the lyrical flow. The first scene especially benefited from a snarling energy that supplied in sound what the staging meant to evoke. The chorus (prepared by John Keene) also used details to excellent effect in the two palace scenes, hinting at a whole spectrum of implicit back stories for the audience’s imagination to supply.

One especially memorable detail from Brovsky: her treatment of “La donna è mobile,” the opera’s most-famous (and ironic) number, as a kind of prop. Here it’s a pop hit that obviously gets a lot of play on the state radio. We hear it (i.e., the orchestra’s preliminaries) as the Duke tunes in the radio while he’s out slumming for sex, prompting him to sing it himself. It’s when Rigoletto hears the Duke’s version again, after his presumed stabbing, that the corpse’s identity becomes a chilling question.

Brovsky’s conceit is right in keeping with Verdi’s own “high concept” interpolation of the tune, which refuses the expected cadence but has the melody fade away. Verdi begins the tune with a false start, and it never really ends — the Duke is left unscathed, ready for his next conquest, leaving us with a catchy tune. Fascism, as Walter Benjamin famously pointed out, is the “aestheticization of politics.”

Seattle Opera’s production of Rigoletto runs through January 25. Tickets available here.

Review (C) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved

Filed under: review, Seattle Opera, Verdi

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