Staging operas from the standard repertory is a daunting task for companies large and small. There are so many elements involved – performers, conductor, directorial concept, sets and costumes – that achieving a balanced whole is nearly impossible. But those rare occasions when everything comes together prove why there’s nothing quite like opera for thrilling musical and emotional experiences.

North Carolina Opera‘s production of Rigoletto was one such occasion. At the Friday premiere, there was nothing to distract from the glorious melodies and tragic story in Giuseppe Verdi’s 1851 masterpiece. The company’s production was so well done that it made plain how difficult the music and drama is in this work, the audience often gasping at the singers’ vocal feats and Verdi’s theatrical effects.

The production was in good stead from the first notes of the prelude under the guidance of maestro Joseph Rescigno, longtime artistic advisor and principal conductor of Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera Company. His experienced way with the score made sure that all of Verdi’s lyricism, energy, and atmosphere worked their magic. The North Carolina Opera orchestra responded to Rescigno’s signals with appropriate delicacy and vigor, as required.

The large cast was uniformly even, down to the last courtier and page. Of particular note was the way in which all shaped their lines with character and meaning.

Joseph Dennis‘ youthful, handsome Duke of Mantua made it easy to believe in Gilda’s attraction to him. His clear, bright tenor rang out impressively in the Duke’s big moments, his technique solid and confidently applied. The opera’s hit tune, “La donna è mobile,” held no terrors for Dennis, performed not as a showy circus trick but with casual cockiness, in character. His Duke was not overtly lecherous but merely acceptant of his rank’s privilege in the 16th century.

Soprano Jacqueline Echols returned to the company, after fine performances as Musetta in La Bohème and Violetta in La Traviata, to sing a heart-rending Gilda, both dramatically and vocally. She’s one of those performers that audiences love to watch every moment she is on stage because of her total engagement in her character. Her lovely, unforced vocalizing was especially mesmerizing in “Caro nome,” her romantic swooning over the Duke perfectly limned through Verdi’s dreamy melody. But Echols could also stun with intense outbursts in duets and ensembles, particularly with Rigoletto at the end of Act II and in Act III’s storm trio.

Malcolm MacKenzie‘s first lines as Rigoletto quickly established his rich, freely produced baritone as one to savor in the part. His assured negotiation of the character’s punishing high tessitura continued to thrill throughout the lengthy role. MacKenzie somewhat underplayed Rigoletto’s emotional stress in Act II when begging the courtiers to let him see his abducted daughter and at the discovery of her lifeless body at the opera’s finale, but his consistently mellifluous tone made such moments minor blemishes.

Soloman Howard‘s deep bass and imposing stature gave Sparafucile appropriate menace, while Olivia Vote as his sister and accomplice, Maddalena, supplied a pleasing, natural mezzo, not overplaying the vamp element so often applied to the role. Adrian Smith‘s Monterone poured out imposing tone in his outrage against the Duke; Lucinio Santos‘ Count Ceprano seethed with constrained hatred; Scott MacLeod‘s Marullo had charming spunk relating the rumor about Rigoletto’s mistress; and Wade Henderson‘s Borsa balanced hauteur and wiliness.

No roles were too small to make an impression. Jennifer Seiger’s housekeeper Giovanna was slyly complicit with the Duke’s intentions towards Gilda; Sara Womble’s Countess Ceprano combined propriety with flattered curiosity; Rachel Stenbuck’s intimidated Page fled humorously under courtier pressure; and Tom Keefe’s Usher sternly announced Monterone’s trip to the dungeon.

Rigoletto calls only for a male chorus, which has a number of important scenes at court and at Gilda’s abduction, as well as becoming the sound of the wind in the third act storm. Chorus master Scott MacLeod has honed the company’s men to near perfection, their precision and harmonizing most impressive. Only the off-stage wind effect – too loud and roughly sung – marred an otherwise exemplary performance.

Seemingly one of the most difficult elements in current opera production is the stage direction, which often is either too high-concept or too unfamiliar with what opera singers need to sing their roles properly. It’s gratifying to report that Matthew Lata directed the action simply, cleanly and with understanding of each moment’s mood and character. Under his guidance, the story unfolded naturally and with realism rather than with grand gesturing. North Carolina Opera would do well to retain his sevices whenever possible.

The sets, originally designed by David P. Gordon for Sarasota Opera, were beautifully done, from the grand halls of the Duke’s palace to Rigoletto’s modest home and the rundown inn where Gilda learns of the Duke’s faithlessness. Tlaloc Lopez-Watermann‘s subtly hued lighting added palpable mood to all locations, while Glenn Avery Breed‘s costumes supplied period color and character.

North Carolina Opera is now two for two this season, with this fine Rigoletto following the company’s huge success last fall with Cold Mountain. That bodes well for a triple play with the April 29 concert performance of Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah.

This performance repeats Sunday, January 28 at 2 pm in Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium. See our sidebar for details.