SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – San Francisco Opera opened its 90th season this week with back-to-back, double-cast performances of Verdi’s great thriller “Rigoletto,” a dark tale in which the title character, a court jester in 16th-century Italy, devotes his life to the protection of an only daughter from the advances of the capricious and immoral Duke.

Opera has always been the big show in San Francisco, ever since the first performances in the Stanford stadium when five dollars bought a front-row seat for a star-studded “Pagliacci.”

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Saturday’s performance shaped nicely into touching and fully engaged drama after a somewhat lukewarm court scene and a strangely embedded “maledizione” — the curse that tracks Rigoletto and his daughter Gilda to their doom.

(credit: Cindy Warner)

The first of Verdi’s ripened middle period, “Rigoletto” is so rich musically that many of its arias and duets and a notable act three quartet are household tunes, in particular “Caro nome,” which names the errant Duke as Gilda’s lover, and the Duke’s “La donna e mobile,” which has been covered and jingled and chosen as a signature song by many a tenor, including Enrico Caruso.

Company music director Nicola Luisotti drew an ebullient reading from the orchestra, bringing to the fore the evil forces that plague Rigoletto. The orchestral playing was unleashed and lush, culminating with an especially wild and effective storm scene.

Featured in the title role Saturday was baritone Marco Vratogna, who appeared here as a memorable, fiery Iago in the 2009 “Otello.” This performance found him interiorizing his passions more, the curse gnawing at him and his love for Gilda and concern for her safety stoking a steady fire within.

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And what a Gilda! Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova, who made her San Francisco debut as Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “Magic Flute” this summer, sang with luscious color and gleaming lights. Her conflict between duty to Rigoletto and love for the Duke was apparent in every note, and an understated theatricality only underscored the glory of her voice.

Mexican tenor Arturo Chacon-Cruz, standing in for David Lomeli, sang with a fine lyric sound, his ardent voice matched less well by his dramatic presentation but persuasive as the churlish Duke of Mantua.Andrea Silvestrelli was marvelous as the black-voiced hit man Sparafucile. Robert Pomakov (Monterone) and Kendall Gladen (Maddalena) were somewhat underpowered, but Adler Fellows Laura Krumm (Countess Ceprano) and Joo Won Kang (Marullo) made striking appearances, and Ian Robertson’s chorus scored on every count.

The settings for this production date from the 1990s: Michael Yeargan’s surreal, di Chirico-inspired sets suggesting a bleak and dangerous cityscape in 16th-century Italy. With Harry Silverstein’s straightforward direction they serve the music well.

There are ten more performances of “Rigoletto” at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House through Sept. 30.

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