A fine cast does justice to an unjust world in BLO’s “Rigoletto”
There may be no more vexing story in Verdi’s oeuvre than Rigoletto. Its themes of failed vigilante justice, naïve self sacrifice, and the bad-guy-goes-scot-free narrative are still as morally jarring today as they were in the composer’s lifetime.
In a colorful and engaging new production by the Boston Lyric Opera, which opened Friday night at the Shubert Theatre, the tragic story of the cursed court jester was as urgent, immediate, and palpable as ever.
The sharp-tongued and hunchbacked Rigoletto seeks revenge on the womanizing Duke of Mantua for the kidnapping and seducing of his beautiful daughter, Gilda. He hires an assassin to get the job done, but Gilda, still in love with the Duke even after learning his true identity, sacrifices her own life to save his. A horrified Rigoletto is left cradling his dead daughter in his arms while the Duke, none the wiser, is free to continue his lustful ways.
Recent productions have set the story, taken from Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse, in places as strange as a Las Vegas casino and the Planet of the Apes. But there’s always something to be said for settings that return the opera to its roots.
With its colorful period costumes, simple and effective staging, not to mention the fine singing from a new and returning cast, BLO’s production moves away from the hyper-modernized productions and places the action back in the Italian Renaissance.
But there’s nothing dated about the staging. John Conklin’s slick set designs are saturated with symbolism. The black, rocky walls of Rigoletto’s dwelling looked as desperate and stone-cold as a poor man’s underworld. Dark red lighting, capturing Rigoletto’s all-consuming anger, and strobe effects for Gilda’s murder scene recall film noir. Hovering over every set, as if at a distance, was a replica of a white city, an unobtainable ideal that will always remain out of reach.
For scenes in the Duke’s palace, painted images of Renaissance-style nudes are overlapped to form grotesque collages and even fragmented to serve as visual leitmotivs. As the Duke sings the famous “La donna è mobile,” an aria declaring the fickle nature and of women, we see the image of a woman’s bare torso on the wall.
Clever as this may be, such symbolism, at times, seemed unnecessarily academic. The painting of a woman’s head, the only decoration on the dark walls for Gilda’s introductory scene, was puzzling. Was it there to reinforce Gilda’s innocence, signify that she had no mother? It’s hard to say.
Fortunately, Verdi’s music provides plenty of dramatic cues on its own. With Rigoletto, the composer set the stage for modern Italian opera. Gone were the formulaic arrangements of arias, choruses, and grand finales. The score’s memorable melodies and evocative instrumental writing flow in almost continuous waves for cohesive story telling.
As Rigoletto, baritone Michael Mayes, also in his first BLO performance, caught the full range of the character’s jocularity as well as the dark anger and sorrowful depths of his tragic downfall. His amber-toned “Cortigiani” the jester’s pleading to the Duke’s courtiers, made for a pitiable and poignant moment, and Mayes’ singing in the final scene was heart-breaking.
Nadine Sierra displayed a supple soprano and elegant stage presence, giving the role of Gilda the personality of the sweet girl next door. Her “Caro nome” sounded effortless and graceful. Mayes and Sierra struck a fine chemistry as father and daughter, their voices melding with the other in a sweet blend.
One couldn’t tell that tenor Bruce Sledge, also in his BLO debut, was suffering from a slight cold. As the Duke of Mantua, his voice came off strong and nimble with a dexterous feel for Verdi’s style. He delivered the famous “La donna è mobile” with crispness, and his sweet, cooing arias to the various women in the story gave the diabolical character a charming veneer.
Other standouts included David Cushing, who, in his brief role at Count Monterone, sang with commanding power while cursing Rigoletto. Bass Morris Robinson sounded rich and sinister as the assassin Sparafucile, and mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock struck a coy presence as his sister, Maddalena.
The choir of courtiers delivered their lines with crisp energy. David Kravtiz’s, as Marullo, captured his character’s cold-hearted demeanour.
Christopher Franklin, making his BLO debut, conducted the orchestra in a sparkling account of Verdi’s dramatic score. Franklin led with fleet tempos but took time to carefully sculpt the phrases for the opera’s arias and duets.
Rigoletto will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. Friday, and 3 p.m. March 23 at the Shubert Theatre. blo.org
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