Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Music director Michael Christie, conducting the Minnesota Opera Orchestra for the last time, draws out every soft tone and emphatic fanfare in the score, seamlessly gliding the orchestra from one section to the next, as if it is a musical tale fervently being told in one rapt sitting. The production has been cast with exceptional leads, and stage director August Regan maintains fluid motion on stage, with clarity that keeps the unfolding story at center stage. These are reasons to rush to this Rigoletto, in spite of the fact that the tale it so beautifully tells is a great odds with the currents of this day.
In 1850 Verdi chose an 1832 play by Victor Hugo, Le Roi s'amuse ("The King Amuses Himself") as the basis of an opera. Though well received at its opening, the play was shut down by censors for its depiction of a planned assassination of a king, and the characterization of that king as a self-indulgent, hedonistic womanizer. It was suspected that Hugo meant to skewer newly installed (through devious means) French King Louis Phillippe. In 1850 regicide was still an unacceptable storyline. Verdi got past the censors by demoting the sybaritic royal to a duke. Rigoletto premiered in 1851 and was an immediate triumph.
In 2018, it is not the plot to murder the Duke of Mantua that is likely to rile up audience members, but his abominable behavior, without any consequence. He uses his positional power and glib tongue to lure any woman he choosesmarried or unmarriedfor his sexual pleasure. What feels most out of step with the current era is not the horrid behavior of a powerful man toward womenthat continues to our day, and in fact this past year has frequently made headlines. It is that once the Duke has had his lustful way with a woman, the focus turns to the dishonor placed upon her husband or father, never showing us the harm done to the woman herself, as if the rape of a daughter is more a crime against her father than against the girl herself.
In the opening party scene alone, the Duke forces himself on Countess Ceprano, is confronted by Count Monterone for seducing his daughter, and talks openly of lusting after a young lady he has spied at church. Count Ceprano is openly jeered by the Duke and the rest of the court for protesting the Duke's affair with his wife, and Count Monterone is imprisoned for challenging the Duke's right to bed whoever he wishes. As for the young lady at church, she is at the core of Rigoletto's story. Rigoletto, the Duke's jester, is embittered by a deformed leg and a loveless life. He exorcises his hostility by verbally assaulting those in the Duke's court. As a jester, he is far more cruel than funny.
Count Monterone is sentenced to death for continuing to protest the Duke's ravishment of his daughter. The Duke and Rigoletto further insult the Count, making sport of his claims of lost honor. Before being taken to the gallows, Count Monterone hails a curse upon the heads of both the Duke and Rigoletto. The Duke laughs this off, but Rigoletto is strangely shaken. It is a curse from a father in defense of his child, and Rigoletto too is a father.
Gilda, Rigoletto's virtuous daughter, is the only good thing about his life. He tries desperately to shield her from the world, allowing her out only to attend church. At church she is spotted by the Duke (in the guise of a poor student) who fixes his sites on her. She is also drawn to his handsome looks. He finds his way to her and they declare eternal lovethough we only believe one of them. When Rigoletto learns of this, he is incensed. His cruelty toward those cuckolded by the Duke, his disregard for Count Monterone's anguish, and the Count's curse return to haunt him. Rigoletto's frantic efforts to restore Gilda's honor and overcome the curse take him down a dark and sorrowful path.
Olafur Sigurdarson, making his Minnesota Opera debut, is glorious as Rigoletto. His full baritone fills the house at the Ordway with smooth, aching tones in his solos, and he harmonizes beautifully in the opera's duets, trios and quartets. Not only is his voice perfectly attuned to the role, but he imbues Rigoletto's character with the emotions of a man haunted, first by his disability, and then, belatedly, by the tragic consequence of his own behavior.
Marie Eve Munger sings beautifully as Gilda, her soprano lilting in her earlier, innocent moments, and acquiring a burnished warmth as her innocence is by stages dissolved. As Gilda loses everything she has in the name of love, Munger portrays this loss as a willful choice, retaining her character's dignity and strength. Joshua Dennis has a rolling tenor that suits his role as the amoral Duke. Dennis depicts the smug, despicable heart of this man, justifying his own debauchery by singing about the fickle ways of women (the popular "La Donna e' Mobile") as if convinced that it is the women he uses and discards, and not he who lack constancy.
Matt Boehler is suitably sinister in tone and demeanor, his deep bass underscoring the murderer-for-hire, Sparafucile. Nadia Fayad is alluring as Maddalena, a temptress meant to entrap the Duke who instead succumbs to his charm, her contra-alto persuasively marking her change of heart. Kenneth Kellogg sings the role of Count Monterone with moral authority, his strong baritone delivering a curse that hangs thick in the air. Victoria Vargas uses her vibrant mezzo-soprano range well as Gilda's too-easily compromised chaperone. The performers in other small roles, and the male chorus, comprising courtiers in the Duke's court in hopes of winning his mercurial favor, all sound marvelous.
Valérie Thérêse Bart has designed costumes that give this Rigoletto a contemporary feel, with toucheslong cloaks, flashing capes, neon-lit masksthat temper it with a surreal quality. Julia Noulin-Mérat's set design places huge photos of the Duke, looking smug, defying any one to challenge him, as backdrops to the court scenes, images that bring our nation's current leadership to mind. Gilda's bed chamber is lovely looking, a sheltering nest that fails to protect her. Behind this, and behind all the scenes, the rear of the stage is draped with what looks like black plastic sheeting, not a very pleasing look, but perhaps that is the intent. Banners draped on each side of the proscenium and patches worn by all the men bear the Duke's insignia, a sort of Buddhist endless knot, as an ever-present sign of his authorityin the manner of a swastika. The lighting design by Paul Whitaker is extremely well executed, for Rigoletto is an opera that depends on varying shades of darkness.
Verdi was a genius, and a prolific one, creating 25 operas in a career that spanned 51 years. Rigoletto is always ranked among his best work, and some would call it his greatest. Minnesota Opera has unfurled a production that delivers all of the beauty in Verdi's work. If the content rubs up against the current historic moment, with #metoo a social battle cry, let that offer fodder for discussion, not a reason to miss one of the highlights of this, or any, season.
Rigoletto, through March 31, 2018, a production of Minnesota Opera presented at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $215.00. For information and tickets call 612-333-6699 or go to www.mnopera.org.
Music: Guiseppe Verdi; Libretto: Francesco Maria Piave, based on the play Le Roi s'amuse by Victor Hugo; Conductor: Michael Christie; Stage Director: Austin Regan; Set Design: Julia Noulin-Mérat; Costume Design: Valérie Thérêse Bart; Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker; Wig and Make-Up Design: David Zimmerman; Assistant Conductor/Chorusmaster: Matthew Lobaugh; Assistant Director: David Radamés Toro; Fight Manager: Tom Ringberg; Répétiteurs: Jessica Hall and Lindsay Woodward; Production Stage Manager: Jamie K. Fuller
Cast: Andres Acosta (Matteo Borsa), Matt Boehler (Sparafucile), Christina Christensen (Page), Joshua Dennis (Duke of Mantua), Nadia Fayad (Maddalena), Mary Evelyn Hangley (Countess Ceprano), Kenneth Kellogg (Count Monterone), Joel Mathis (Usher), Marie-Eve Munger (Gilda), Olafur Sigurdarson (Rigoletto), Wm. Clay Thompson (Count Ceprano), Christian Thurston (Marullo), Victoria Vargas (Giovanna).