According to statisticians Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto was the 9th most programed opera worldwide between 2008 and 2013, with 395 separate productions. Indeed, since its hugely successful premiere in Venice in 1851, it has remained a standard of the repertoire. With an opera as famous and with a performance history as long as Rigoletto’s, directors can be tempted to freshen or update a production. Thankfully, in the Boston Lyric Opera’s new production of Rigoletto running now at the Shubert, General & Artistic Director Esther Nelson has put together a remarkable cast in a production that maintains the original setting of the opera (Renaissance Italy) and allows the passion and beauty of this timeless masterpiece to shine through.
Religion plays a subtle but important role in John Conklin’s set design, like it does in Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto, Set always in view of an Augustinian city on the hill, inspired by the religious imagery of early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, the religious ideals that drive what is essentially an honor killing are never far from view. When Rigoletto pleads that his daughter be returned to him pure (puro) and unstained (immacolato), the parallels drawn with the Madonna are explicit. Yet, one quickly sympathizes with Michael Mayes’s Rigoletto, who, with Falstaff, is perhaps one of Verdi’s most complicated characters.
Mayes handles well his character’s cognitive dissonance as the narcissistic court jester and the caring/sensitive father. His baritone, powerful yet fully controlled, shifted seamlessly in color between expressions of terror, pleading, and angry vengeance in his astounding “Povero Rigoletto.” He was well matched by the rising star soprano Nadine Sierra cast as his daughter Gilda. Her “Caro nome” was sung with so much grace and relaxed joy (much of it delivered while on her back) that it camouflaged the difficulty and precision of her line; at the cadenza the music and emotion became one. However, their duet “Figlia, mio padre” was, hands down, the best number of the evening, not for its vocal pyrotechnics or acting, but for their nuanced interpretation and sensitive musicality. As the Duke, Bruce Sledge, who was rumored to be under the weather on Thursday, began the evening tentatively, but soon found his voice and delivered his final dark “La donna e mobile” with clear and effective vibrancy.
As the opera’s primary antagonist, Michelle Alexander’s choir of courtiers was funny at times and darkly sadistic at others; their “Zitti, zitti” was performed with an excellent attention to the number’s sophisticated dynamic requirements while maintaining a good intonation and blend and performing the scene’s quite complicated choreography.
Of the rest of the cast, as the assassin, Morris Robinson’s imposing Sparafucile, whose stage presence and seemingly unfathomable bass explained his nickname “massive,” was excellent. Audrey Babcock as Sparafucile’s seductive sister Maddalena sang with an alluring mezzo. The other members of this very capable supporting cast included Chelsea Basler and Liam Moran as the Ceprano nobles, Omar Najmi as Borsa, David Kravitz as Marullo, Samantha Weppelmann as Giovanna and David Cushing as a the raging Monterone.
The most remarkable aspect of the production is the way the elements all worked together like a finely tuned engine. For example, in the murder scene costume designer Victoria Tzykun’s oversized suit for Gilda and Tomer Zvulun’s blocking, framing the slight Gilda with Sparafucile’s hulking figure as he garrotes her, greatly enhanced an already riveting moment. These, coupled with Robert Wierzel’s strobe lightning, itself accompanied by Verdi’s sneering flute, all worked together to create the horrific mise-en-scène. Conductor Christopher Franklin gave an excellent and patient reading of the score, allowing the loosely connected themes of Verdi’s tinta to support the production’s unity but not define it.
In a strange echo from the BLO’s 2013 production of Der Fliegender Holländer, the color red returns as a character—but this time it is much more subtly drawn. First appearing on Rigoletto’s jester’s costume it quickly develops into an abstract manifestation of Monterone’s curse, coloring the courtier’s masks, the ladder they use to kidnap Gilda, the garotte used to kill her but most powerfully, it is what separates Rigoletto from the others on the stage.
In the end, the one and only problem with this production is a result of the BLO’s seeming inability to leave a method of death alone. In the Holländer production mentioned above, instead of leaping to join the Dutchman in the depths as Wagner scored it, the BLO had Senta graphically (and senselessly) cut her own throat—which emphasized that production’s use of a symbolic red. For Rigoletto, instead of Sparafucile stabbing Gilda as Verdi scored it, (and for which the red would have made sense) he strangles her, creating a problem. How does a person revive from being strangled and still be mortally wounded as Gilda does in the final scene? It seems they came up with two different solutions to this problem and inexplicably used them both.
First, they have Rigoletto plunge his knife into the sack, stabbing the dead body while he still thinks it is the Duke. Why would he stab a body that he already thinks is dead? This solution unnecessarily seeks to heighten an already disturbing moment; it just doesn’t work and frankly comes off as cheap effect. Their other solution, also employed, is to have Gilda appear as a spirit or vision to Rigoletto and have her sing her final lines as she makes her way into the great beyond. This is an ingenious decision, solving what has long been noted as a major problem with the opera’s plot, namely, the unimaginable length of time it takes Gilda to die and her amazing ability to sing after spending so much time stabbed in the chest, silent, and stuck in a sack. The production runs at the Shubert through next Sunday.