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The plot of Rigoletto, like any good opera, reads like the instructions for a psych major's worst-nightmare essay question. The Duke of Mantua is a rake and a rambling boy — and proud of it — and boasts of having lain with all the ladies of the court. His new jester, Rigoletto, a precious human soul disguised in the body of a vitriol-tongued, anger-filled hunchback, has a lovely daughter that the Duke is far too interested in. He wants, by keeping her practically imprisoned in his house, to keep the Duke from debauching her. The daughter Gilda has the obligatory romantically-inclined maidservant/chaperon who, believing she is conspiring and abetting with Romance, gives Gilda and the Duke full access to each other. At the same time there's a raft of toady courtiers making mischief, playing cruel pranks, singing choruses, and falling all over each other. And oh yes, there's Sparafucile, assassin for hire, whom Rigoletto hires to kill the Duke. Maddalena is Sparafucile's red-hot sister. She too catches the Duke's eye.
The Duke was played by James Valenti. His voice is wonderful and powerful, and his intonation is dead on the money. His singing is great. He would be a perfect Duke on a recording. But this performance was billed as an opera, not a reading, masque, or tableau; Valenti's acting ability is zip; that's right, zero. When all around him were conveying worlds of nuance with the cock of a head, the wave of an arm, or the scrape of making a leg, Valenti sang but did not act.
Gordon Hawkins (Rigoletto) could not have been more of a contrast. His voice — big, rich, and expressive — was matched by his ability to convey that he was a crippled hunchback. On top of that, his ability to show arrogance, or pride, or tender affection for his daughter — or exhausted desperation — was truly magnificent.
Ailyn Pérez (Gilda) has a voice both youthful and polished. She was a totally convincing innocent daughter to Rigoletto; I could imagine her as equally convincing in a wife or mother role. Her duet with the Duke near the end of Act I was a masterpiece, as was her singing with Rigoletto.
Sparafucile, the bad boy that everyone loves to hate — or something like that (he has the only really funny line in this tragedy) — was sung by Jamie Offenbach. Offenbach seems to have been imbued with a lot of Sparafucile's bad-boy love-hate, judging from the rumpus his claque made at the final bows. His singing was free, relaxed, and delightful.
Maddalena was ably sung — as a tap-room floozy with a degree from a good university — by Angela Horn, in her Opera Carolina debut. I predict she will return soon and often.
Presented in the Belk Theatre of North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, this was a fine production overall, with no glitches, no chokes, no miscues; it was totally professional and smooth (better than slick!). Opera Carolina, accompanied by the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra under the direction of James Meena, offered it three times, on March 1, 3, and 4. In the performance I heard, the ensembles were all first rate.
Verdi's music is complex and interesting; it presents no problems for those who just lie back and let it wash over them. And yet there is only one catchy tune in the whole, "La donna e mobile." People who've never heard of Verdi recognize the melody without knowing anything about it. And it was fun to let this one just wash over one also.
In a masterstroke of recycling, the sets were re-used from the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Their strong architecture and historic believability balanced their courtly magnificence. It would be helpful if the supertitles could be interlined with the actual Italian as well as the somewhat fatuous translation.
The costumes were rich and elaborate, with the required amount of trunk hose and doublets on the men and floor-length gowns and décolletage for the ladies, all save Maddelena. She had a peasant top and a red skirt that showed her ankles even when she was standing still and, friends, it was slit up to... here..., and she was bare-foot. At the curtain call, when she came between the curtains, the crowd was already on its feet and loud. And every married man there denied to his wife that he had anything to do with the additional moan/roar that filled the hall when she flashed her leg.
All around, this was a fine evening of spectacle, drama, precise playing and beautiful singing!