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When he wrote his 1832 play, La roi s'amuse, Victor Hugo lavished a good amount of research on 16th century French king François I and his illicit love for the daughter of his court jester, Triboulet. Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave, who had previously teamed together in transforming Hugo's Ernani into opera, plunged into La roi despite the fact that its depiction of depraved historical characters had run afoul of French censors. That was something of a miscalculation, for Italian censors were no more lenient. Verdi and Piave were compelled to move their opera to nearby Mantua and demote Hugo's king to a duke. Those shifts affect the interrelationships of all three main characters in Rigoletto. A duke's womanizing is more presumptuous than a king's, and a jester's plot to strangle a duke is less of a high crime than assassinating a king. Most important, an Italian daughter's desire to thwart her father's vendetta against a duke who deflowered and betrayed her is far less comprehensible than a French daughter sacrificing herself for her king and protecting her family from the stain of regicide.
Adding to the discomfort that has always suffused Gilda's sacrifice on behalf of the reprehensible Duke of Mantua is watching it in our current #MeToo climate. The notorious Metropolitan Opera production of 2010-11 made Gilda's adulation toward the Duke more understandable by transporting the action to Las Vegas and turning Gilda's seducer into a nightclub superstar crooner with ties to the mob. It would be interesting to see what Opera Carolina could do with a more traditional concept, a co-production by Boston Lyric Opera, Atlanta Opera, and Opera Omaha that has had its set design and costumes baked in since it premiered in Boston, under the direction of Tomer Zvulun, in 2014. You couldn't say that Opera Carolina was ignoring their #MeToo problem, because they brought Jordan Lee Braun aboard to stage direct the Charlotte edition of this production and hired Sara Jobin to prepare the Charlotte Symphony and conduct two of the three performances. It was the first such female tandem in the company's history.
Most of the Rigoletto rehab was evident before intermission. Conducting the orchestra at the premiere performance, general director and principal conductor James Meena had musicians from the Charlotte Symphony attacking the first sforzandos of the prelude with more savagery than we usually hear, foreshadowing the curse that falls on Rigoletto from the Count Monterone, leaving less ferocity for the orchestra to crescendo to afterwards. It's a bit more vulgar and in-your-face, which was what Raffaele Abete turned out to be in the opening scene as the Duke, throwing around Monterone's daughter, his latest conquest, by the hair as if she were a ragdoll – cuing us that he has conquered this beauty with his power and privilege rather than his charm. The other "ladies" in this opening scene, many of them courtesans who entertain the Duke's courtiers, had been excised from this production, concentrating all malice and decadence on the Duke – and his jester, Rigoletto. Our protagonist certainly earns the Count's curse by suggesting to the Duke that he execute the nobleman to spare himself that dad's righteous indignation.
As Rigoletto, baritone Anooshah Golesorkhi wasn't the most malignant mocker I've seen and though costume designer Victoria Tzykun outfited him with a sizable hump, Golesorkhi declined to stoop over and enlist himself among Hugo's hunchbacks. So, he wasn't the most pitifully deformed of jesters either. Humpbacked rather than hunchbacked, this Rigoletto struck me as a stronger, crueler father in his insistence on walling up Gilda against the outside world. We don't get nearly as much to pity about Rigoletto's possessiveness. It appeared, then, that Braun had elected to make both Rigoletto and the Duke more cognizant of their abusive choices and more repellent. When Gilda hoped out loud that her secret love would be poor and simple, the Duke visibly overheard it, debunking any notion that he was romantically inspired when he masqueraded as the penniless Gualtier Maldè.
Yet after intermission, Abete pushed back against the notion that he was a purely vicious, self-gratifying rogue. In his fervent "Parmi veder le lagrime," the tenor convinced me that the Duke was feeling the pangs of true love for the first time, and later, when his infidelity would soon be exposed to the worshipful Gilda, he sang the famous "La donna è mobile" with the joy of a world-class hedonist. Returning to Charlotte after a fine turn last fall as Roxane in David DiChiera's Cyrano, soprano Magali Simard-Galdés wasn't as impressive in Gilda's signature aria. The notes of the beloved "Caro nome" were all there – including most of the trills – but the blushes and longing we could have heard, let alone the heavy aches that Maria Callas achieved, were nowhere to be found in a rendition that was hardly middling, and she earned no bravas from the audience. When called upon to be more confessional and spirited in her subsequent arias, Simard-Galdès plumbed more deeply into Gilda's soul. She was poignant after Gilda had been dismissed by the Duke at his palace. In the final act, after watching the Duke betray her love with nearly the exact sentiments he professed to her, Gilda is sent off to Verona where, disguised as a man, Rigoletto instructs her to wait for him while his hired assassin, Sparafucile, does his dirty work. This was where Simard-Galdés was at her best, reacting to the Duke's betrayal as part of Verdi's great quartet, and implausibly returning later on to take her beloved Duke's place as Sparafucile's victim. The soprano's heartfelt little aria was heartbreaking – and like so many other moments in this opera, absolutely infuriating.
I sympathized most with Golesorkhi in the final two acts, when Rigoletto told Monterone that he would make sure to see that his curse on the Duke was fulfilled and when he empathized with Gilda at those moments she was seeing the Duke's true character clearly. Sadly, Golesorkhi's moping return to the palace, after Gilda was stolen from him, was relatively lackluster. But the volcano of rage welling up in Rigoletto – telling the courtiers that Gilda was his daughter, not his lover, and then cursing the lot of them – was magnificent. For anyone who has felt that the closing tableau of Rigoletto was dramatically overlong, as Gilda slowly reaches her final breath in Rigoletto's arms, Golesorkhi and Simard-Galdés were both helped by Opera Carolina's staging. A nifty sleight-of-hand took place before Rigoletto, alerted by sound of the Duke's signature aria, realized that Gilda had been murdered instead of her seducer. Golesorkhi seemed to discover the dying Gilda and to cradle her in his arms, but she was a body double. Simard-Galdés emerged from behind a scrim, radiantly lit in Michael Baumgarten's lighting design, a soul already in heaven as she sang. The alteration made sense, but I was ambivalent about it.
Unlike Tzykun's costume designs or Martha Ruskai's wig and makeup designs, I didn't find John Conklin's set design particularly worth preserving, scanty for its palace, lacking a façade for Sparafucile's tavern, and utterly illogical for the courtship and abduction episodes. Courtiers actually looked down on the garden scene as Gilda sang the final notes of her rapturous "Caro nome," moments before they climbed up a ladder to abduct her! But it's utterly fanciful to say that the courtiers climbed anything, for there was nothing substantial for Rigoletto to lean a ladder against, except an invisible fourth wall facing us. That ladder was ridiculously small, and needless to say, no climbing was done.
Overall, the Opera Carolina components of this production were stronger than their borrowings. Ashraf Sawailam reminded us what a plum cameo Count Monterone's role is with his stern denunciations, and bass baritone Matthew Curran had nearly all of Sparafucile's sneering machismo, including the long low note he must hold departing from his first conspiratorial parley with Rigoletto. Paradoxically, it was Leyla Martinucci as Sparafucile's sister and accomplice Maddalena, who best affirmed Gilda's crazed devotion toward the Duke.
Hired to help take the Duke off-guard, Martinucci simpered, flirted, and vamped with professional self-assurance, yet she also convinced us that Maddelena had fallen victim to his charms when she pleaded with her cutthroat brother to save the rascal's life. Martinucci was an apt subject for the Duke's "Bella figlia dell'amore" aria, and the mezzo-soprano contributed beguilingly to the climactic quartet that blossomed from his endless appetite for self-gratification. Yes, the Duke was having fun as Hugo's original title prescribed, but what remained horrifying was that woman after woman could mistake it for love.
This performance repeats Thursday, February 15 and Saturday, February 17 at the Belk Theater. See our sidebar for details.