At the Lyric Opera
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – The curtain rises on the Lyric Opera production of “Rigoletto” with a lone figure dressed as a court jester standing alone in a bizarre landscape of strange classical buildings set in an empty square with exaggerated perspectives. Deep disturbing shadows create an ominous, uneasy atmosphere. So before the first note is sung, the audience should recognize that this is an opera in which sinister forces are at work.
Composer Giuseppe Verdi’s 19th century classic is right at home in this menacing world, telling a tale of treachery, betrayal, and revenge. This passionate and ultimately violent story may not hold up well as realistic drama, but the opportunities for ravishing singing are available and the Lyric lead singers seize their opportunities to a man, and especially one woman.
The story is set in the court of an Italian nobleman, the Duke of Mantua, during the Renaissance of the 16th century. The chief characters are Rigoletto, a hunchback jester in the duke’s court, the duke himself, and Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda. The duke is a compulsive seducer who woos, wins, and discards young women at will. He apparently is good at selling his lechery because the women of the court succumb to the wooing only token resistance at most. After the duke has bedded them, he moves on to the next conquest without conscience. One would think that his reputation would get around, but the females buy his vows of love, and there is never a shortage of takers.
The duke actually falls in love with Gilda, but she is virtually imprisoned by her obsessively doting father, who is well aware of the perils an innocent young woman faces from the charming duke and other nobles at court. Yet through intrigue and deceit the beloved Gilda is murdered, leaving Rigoletto grief-stricken at the final curtain.
Verdi used a play by Victor Hugo as the framework for his opera. It is typical overheated example of the Romantic period of the 19th century but it provides a superstructure of plot sufficient to inspire the wonderful music. The score is filled with brilliant arias, duets, and one magnificent quartet. The Lyric principal singers are all spectacular. It’s difficult to imagine opera stars anywhere in the world who could surpass what is being sung on the Lyric stage.
Quinn Kelsey is a physically imposing Rigoletto, a friendless man bitter over his physical deformity and his lowly status in the duke’s court. He despises the courtiers, satirizing them to their face and is thoroughly disliked, inviting retaliation. Rigoletto lives only for his daughter, her mother having died years previously. Rigoletto is also a bit superstitious, and he fears a curse laid on him by Count Monterone, one of the victims of his brutal wit. Kelsey has a commanding baritone voice that he utilizes, along with his body language, to capture the resentment and frustration of a man mired in a life of bitter disappointment.
The tenor Matthew Polenzani evokes the worldly charm of the duke, though the opera libretto makes him zig zag from conscienceless seducer to a man deeply in love with Gilda back to the faithless seducer. Polenzani sings the famous “La donna e mobile” aria with show stopping style as the duke wryly complains about the faithless nature of women. But the ultimate show stopper of the evening is soprano Rosa Feola, making a triumphant Lyric Opera debut. sent the opening night audience into repeated cheers, especially in her rendering of the well-known “Caro nome” aria vocally exploring her rapturous love for the duke. Then there is the familiar quartet in the third act as a further contribution to the Greatest Hits in the Verdi canon.
The production benefits from outstanding work by the supporting performers, notably Todd Thomas as Count Monterone and Alexander Tsymbalyuk, a bass who lends authority and credibility to Sparafucile, the assassin for hire who ultimately and unknowingly is the agent of Gilda’s death. Zanda Svede is fine in the erotic role of the assassin’s sister. Among the duke’s courtiers, Takoaki Onishi (Marullo) and Alan Higgs (Count Ceprano) particularly stand out.
The production is a bit static under E. Loren Meeker’s direction, except for the entrances and exits of the large chorus. But the narrative doesn’t invite a lot of physical action and Meeker rightly allows the music to set the pace for the production. The opera does reach a powerful climax in the final act on the stormy night when Gilda meets her death. Chris Maravich’s lighting intensifies the heightened emotion of the story, especially in the creative stylized storm scene in the final minutes. Constance Hoffman’s realistic Renaissance costumes harmonize smoothly with Michael Yeargan’s wonderfully imaginative De Chirico-laden set design. Marco Armiliato conducts the outstanding Lyric orchestra impeccably.
There are a couple of quibbles. The brief interlude between acts two and three was awkward but that might just have been an opening night glitch. More problematical was the erratic use of the titles projected above the stage to translate the Italian lyrics into English. When the projections worked, they worked well, but the screen was blank too often, so the non-Italian viewers missed out on the words to several major songs, especially duets involving Gilda with Rigoletto or the duke, plus all of the “Caro nome” aria. It was easy enough to follow the sense of the numbers and perhaps the omitted translations were intended to allow the singing to speak for itself. But the absence of the projections was still distracting.
This production of “Rigoletto” is satisfying to connoisseurs of the opera and also to newcomers. The plot, if shaky, is accessible and the dazzling performances and the originality of the sets set this staging apart. The show comes in at a reasonable 2½ hours, a balm to those who are wary of Wagnerian four-hour and more sits that are standard in many operas. Best of all, the singing is thrilling.
“Rigoletto” runs through November 30 at the Civic Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive. Performances are October 11, 14, 19, 22, 26, and 30. Call 312 332 2244 or visit www.lyricopera.org.
The show gets a rating ofOctober 2017
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