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It’s been 942 days since Opera Philadelphia graced the Academy of Music, their venerable home, and they came roaring back on April 29 with a riveting and rapturously received Rigoletto.
Here, Verdi’s masterpiece is set in an unspecified but instantly recognizable seat of power gone unchecked and awry—political, sexual, vengeful, amorous, mob-powered. The curtain rises in silence on the title character (Anthony Clark Evans), alone in the imposingly cold marble hall where the young, philandering Duke of Mantua (Joshua Blue) holds sway. New to the court, Rigoletto is the duke’s funny man: a hunchbacked jester in traditional stagings, here wearing a jacket that marks him as a server among the fashionably suited cadre of high style, high energy political sycophants.
The duke is noted for cuckolding the men in his coterie, and at the outset he tries to seduce Count Ceprano’s (Grant Youngblood) wife (Kara Goodrich) after ruining the daughter of Monterone (Ben Wager), who levies a curse that haunts the opera. To keep his daughter Gilda (Raven McMillon) safe, Rigoletto sequesters her. But seeing Gilda in church, the duke courts her disguised as a student. Assuming she is Rigoletto’s mistress, the duke’s coterie kidnaps her, and Rigoletto finds her disgraced. He pays the assassin Sparafucile (Wei Wu) to murder the duke, but Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena (Kristen Choi) persuades him to kill someone else instead. Gilda substitutes herself and, fatally wounded, is found by her father as she is dying.
Sparkling in the dark
Opera Philadelphia realizes Rigoletto’s grandeur in this consistently compelling, musically strong return to full performance, filled with impassioned and excellent singing and playing. Dark as it is, the opera sparkles with famous arias: La donna è mobile (Woman is fickle), the quartet Bella figlia dell’amore (Beautiful daughter of love), and Caro nome (Sweet name). A vibrant orchestra (under the sure baton of Maestro Corrado Rovaris) tellingly mines and illuminates Verdi’s remarkable, evocative writing for both instruments and the voice. This production makes amply clear, both in stagecraft and musical realization, the dichotomy at the opera’s heart: Verdi’s appealing, often jaunty melodies juxtapose good and evil, musically and dramatically, as they wrap sinuously around words and actions that are bleak, black, and corrupted.
Rigoletto generated plaudits at its 1851 Venice premiere, but its inspiration was far more controversial, something director Lindy Hume tapped for her interpretation. Verdi based Rigoletto on the 1832 Victor Hugo play Le roi s’amuse, a pointed criticism of the French monarchy that, after its first and only performance, was banned in France for 50 years.
Hume created this production for the New Zealand Opera in 2012 and set it in Berlusconi’s Italy, for a similarly direct political comment, making it impossible to put a favorable gloss on the execrable philandering that exists in a climate where (in Hume’s words) “those with power own those without.” Opera Philadelphia has reframed it, moving to a more nebulous locale that nonetheless paints a disturbing portrait of male power and predation, forthrightly confronting sexual assault and violence against women.
Pathos and brio
Throughout, this production’s riveting resonance is amplified by the company’s uniform excellence. Of the opera’s 13 principal roles, there are eight company debuts, including the four leads, and the ensembles, arias, and choruses are realized with clarity and force. Singing this demanding and iconic role, Evans is superb and superbly heartbreaking. Without asking for pity or overplaying the pathos, his Rigoletto is a Willy Loman sort of Everyman, disenfranchised and buffeted by loss, fate, and ridicule. Though Evans effects a slight physical difference in his stance (especially compared to the svelte men around him), it’s clear that his deformity is hugest in his own mind.
Tenor Blue glories in singing the rapacious Duke, and his signature aria about the vagaries of women—sung with unapologetic and fearless brio—sent the audience into raptures. As Gilda, McMillon (whose beautiful voice seems a little light for this role) exudes grace and naïveté without being cloying, and she is exceptionally affecting in the opera’s beautiful father-daughter duets, especially in Act III where she reaches in vain for Rigoletto’s hand.
Hume’s conception has been thoughtfully re-staged by Daniel Pelzig, with memorable sets and costumes by Richard Roberts. Periodically during the performance, the duke’s massive chamber hovers malevolently over the action, and you can almost smell the seedy bar where Sparafucile and Maddalena hold sway. There are a few design missteps—we don’t really need flapping ravens to prognosticate, and Rigoletto’s down-market apartment is far too confining physically for the singers. But multiple video screens tellingly portray the duke’s pervasive political tentacles, and his cavernous public space that accentuates Rigoletto’s isolation is chilling and effective.
A contemporary light
Rigoletto is a work rife with contradiction, something easily missed in a “tights and doublet” staging but foregrounded in this contemporary setting. True, it might be easier to accommodate the inconsistencies of an operatic plot when it’s set and costumed in a far-away era; contemporary dress and settings illuminate them far more clearly. But this powerful production makes it difficult to view Rigoletto again in the same rose-colored, tinted-by-history way. Great art sustains even as it pushes us forward, something this production understands deeply and embraces fully.
Know before you go: Rigoletto includes themes of sexual assault and depictions of violence against women.
What, When, Where
Rigoletto. Music by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave; directed by Daniel Pelzig, after original stage direction by Lindy Hume. Conducted by Corrado Rovaris. $25-$275. Through May 8, 2022 at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 732-8400 operaphila.org.
All guests five years of age or older are required to show proof of full Covid-19 vaccination for entry. Adults over 18 will be required to show photo ID with proof of vaccination. Masks are required inside the venue.
The performance is sung in Italian with English supertitles. The Academy has wheelchair accessible seating, seats near the stage for patrons with low vision or blindness, and assistive listening devices.
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