Superb solo voices in the leading roles and outstanding orchestral support made this opening production of the Piedmont Opera‘s 38th season at the Stevens Center a winner!

Side-stepping the censorship which banned Victor Hugo’s play about the French King François I for half a century by placing the action in the innocuous provincial capital of Mantua, Giuseppe Verdi nonetheless presents a shocking tale of lust, revenge and murder which serves as the background of one of the composer’s most inspired and beloved operas.

In the title role, Robert Overman was the misanthropic court-jester, a hunchback in Verdi, replacing the dwarf in Hugo’s history. His rich and colorful voice brought out the characteristics of the acerbic buffoon with incisiveness and of the doting father with touching tenderness. I was particularly moved by the second act aria of self-pity, “Povero Rigoletto” with the mocking room of courtiers who had no understanding of his lost abducted daughter. Only occasionally eclipsing Amy Maples (his daughter Gilda in the performance) with his powerful baritone voice, Overman is a larger-than-life character and a perfect choice for Rigoletto.

His mysterious and protected daughter, Gilda, splendidly sung by soprano Maples, is the willing victim of the plot hatched by her father to get rid of his depraved lascivious patron, the Duke of Mantua. Maples’ voice was lovely and pure, although one occasionally wished her to sing “on top” of notes, as in the musicians’ adage, “it’s okay to be sharp, as long as it’s in tune!” Her expressive version of the famous “Caro nome” justly brought down the house. She made effective use of facial expressions, especially in the tender scene when she confessed her love to the disguised Duke of Mantua, and again when she was trying to decide whether to sacrifice herself to save his life.

The role of the libertine young Duke of Mantua was sung by René Barbera whose career has been nothing short of meteoric since his student days at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Handsome and charming with a rich, powerful and sweet tenor voice, Barbera was a hit from his first appearance on stage as the host in the party scene until his final off-stage “La donna é mobile” betraying the tragedy which befalls Rigoletto, who discovers that the body in his arms is that of his dying daughter.

The Count Monterone, elegantly sung with indignation by Donald Hartmann, utters the curse on both the profligate Duke and his mocking jester, Rigoletto. Upsetting all notions of justice prevailing in the end, the Duke escapes unscathed while the malediction rests heavily on the hapless Rigoletto.

The instrument of death, Sparafucile, was sung by bass Brian Banion, who has a menacing voice and a terrific range, holding his Act I closing low “F” for a seeming eternity. His accomplice and sister is the alluring Maddalena, seductively sung and acted by Kristin Schwecke (who also sang the role of Countess Ceprano in the first act). The most exquisite singing in the third act was the quartet, “Bella figlia dell’amore” in which the Duke seduces Maddalena within earshot of the grieving Gilda and the plotting Rigoletto.

Maestro James Allbritten, General Director and Principal Conductor of the Piedmont, Opera did a terrific job of leading the Winston-Salem Symphony orchestra in the pit and balancing the forces and the tempos throughout the opera. The strings of the orchestra have never sounded better and the principal oboe, John Hammarback, principal flute, Kathryn Levy and principal clarinet, Anthony Taylor turned in some outstanding solo work. Curious audience members may wish to stroll to the front of the hall to observe the presence of the cimbasso in the far right corner of the pit.

A convincing thunderstorm in the third act with appropriate lighting effects (Norman Coates) and well-choreographed dance (Elizabeth Fowle) in the opening party scene were all under the effective supervision of Steven LaCosse, Stage Director. An excessively long scene change in the first act might have benefited from “lights to half-house” to permit the fidgety audience to read their program notes.

Repeat performances of Rigoletto at the Stevens Center take place Sunday, October 25 at 2 pm and Tuesday, October 27 at 7:30 pm.