On Saturday, August 6, it took about five hours to escape from the Triangle’s oppressive 90°+ heat and humidity. After a drive to Brevard, some 40 miles west of Asheville, we were sitting in the Wittington-Pfohl open-air auditorium, listening to the crickets, cicadas, tree frogs and other night creatures tuning up with the violins of the Brevard Music Center Orchestra. At 7:30 p.m., when David Effron took the podium and the opening ball-room music of Rigoletto filled the auditorium, the temperature was 70°, the mountain air was sweet, the cicadas faded into the background, and the magic of Giuseppe Verdi took over for the next three hours.

Verdi saw operatic potential in Victor Hugo’s politically explosive satire “Le roi s’amuse.” Even though it was banned in France after one performance, Verdi’s librettist Francesco Piave proceeded with modifications – changing the king to a duke and the setting from France to Italy, and altering certain scenes considered lurid. The opera has had an uneven history since its first performance. On the one hand, many have considered it banal and trite: composer Arthur Honegger summed it up contemptuously as “a packaging error.” For others, including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Verdi never wrote anything better. Perhaps somewhere between these extremes is a rational assessment.

As for the drama, what is this tale really about? The brutal inescapability of fate? The awful power of a curse? The dangers of mocking another? The irrational insanity of love? The inexplicable fortuity of rascality? Who are these staged characters of Victor Hugo’s imagination? And why should we care about any of them?

The music, per se, is not great, especially when compared to Brahms and Berlioz and Wagner, who were writing at the same time and whose innovations were a hundred years ahead of Verdi. But then, Verdi was a child of his time and place, and ditties like “Questa o quella,” “Caro nome,” and “La donna é mobile” were what patrons went to the opera for – not real drama or intense characterization. Having said this, I must hasten to add, Verdi’s capabilities went far beyond being just an Italian populist composer. Through his genius, he was able to imbue even such fluff as Rigoletto with drama, conflict, inner tension and human pathos. He invented new forms for the opening ballroom scene, interweaving balata and minuets with banda music. For the first time ever, he set a storm (in the fourth act) as part of the action, not as an interlude, using the chorus as the moaning of the wind to underscore the eeriness of the night. Even “footlight” arias (such as “Caro nome”) are more than banalities designed to show off the singer’s agility; they reveal something significant of the characters’ nature, their motivation, and the inner conflicts they are living with. So to those who have said this is “one of the greatest creations of the modern theater” we can reply: the play, definitely no; the opera, quite possibly.

Most of the cast were students at the Brevard Music Center Summer Institute, ranging in age from 20 to 26. The only exception was the title character, sung persuasively by Carlos Serrano, Professor of Voice at Temple University. His seasoned portrayal of the hunchback conveyed all the emotion – from ribaldry to tenderness, from deep sadness to murderous hatred – that Verdi saw in the character. The humongous, obviously artificial hump he wore on his back was more of a distraction than a prop that gave meaning to the character. His limp was inconsistent. Still his effective vocalization overcame these drawbacks. His aria in Act II – where he confronts the courtiers, weeps for Gilda’s fate, and pleads for their mercy – was heart-rending and a bona fide show stopper.

There is something special about seeing an opera like this with young faces – rather than seasoned 40- or 50-year-old established pros – singing the parts of characters that are mostly intended to be young people. Gilda, undoubtedly involved in her first love, may have been 17 or younger. The Duke is unmarried and interested in sowing wild oats; the courtiers prefer playing pranks to staking out advantages. Lee Kathleen Taylor was fetching as Gilda, though “Caro nome” was so slow as to nearly miss the cantabile of the aria. Her high tones were crystal clear and wonderfully bell like. As the Duke, Gregg Jacobson was less impressive. Though he acquitted himself well over all, there were places where his vocal control showed weakness, and by the third act, he seemed tired. His rendition of “La donna é mobile,” though winsome, faltered on the climactic high fermata. Max Wier (the assassin) and Joanna Gates (Maddalena) were outstanding – just about flawless. Catherine Martin (Gilda’s nurse) and Tyrone Hayes (Count Monterone) were both a little rigid in their roles, but both brought beautiful voices to the production. Other roles – sung by Jonathan Zeng, Adam Cioffari, Jennifer Moore, and Amanda Kingston – were nicely rendered.

The sets, costumes, and production by the Janiec Opera Company staff included the labor of many of the young people and were outstanding realizations of a traditional 19th-century staging. The stage was a lazy-susan affair that turned – switching from the ballroom to an inner chamber, from the inn to the bank of the river. The costumes were colorful, apropos and, for the most part, well-fitted. Students were involved in all phases of the production.

The outstanding orchestra consisted of fine young musicians from many states, including some still in their teens. The experienced, capable – yea, outstanding – wand of David Effron shaped the nuances of Verdi’s score masterfully, drew the best from the young ensemble, and charmed the audience on an evening that was just cool enough to be wonderful.