By Jane Recker
Rigoletto tells the story from a court jester, but it’s far from funny.
Behind the grin and pastel costume, Rigoletto faces a deep inner turmoil and is plagued by a curse upon his house. Lyric Opera’s newest production expertly portrays the many colors of this show through an intelligent design team and all-star cast.
The production was originally performed at San Francisco Opera and is directed by E. Loren Meeker. One of Verdi’s most iconic operas, the show opens with Rigoletto aiding his master – the lustful Duke – in seducing the many women of the court. The Duke and Rigoletto are cursed by the husband of a woman the duke seduces, beginning Rigoletto’s bad fortunes. Rigoletto’s daughter, the sweet and naive Gilda, is courted by and falls for the Duke, despite Rigoletto’s attempts to keep her hidden. When Rigoletto pays a swordsman to kill the Duke, Gilda sacrifices her life to save the duke – even though she knows he is unfaithful – thus leaving Rigoletto totally alone in this world.
Michael Yeargan’s scenic design, based on Giorgio de Chirico’s aptly named “Melancholia” creates a stark sense of unease perfect for the story of the cursed jester. Combined with Chris Maravich’s lighting design (which threw menacing shadows on the sloping buildings) and Constance Hoffman’s clever costume design (Rigoletto and Gilda in cool jewel tones contrast with the Duke and Maddalena’s amorous blacks and reds), a menacing background emerges with clear lines drawn between good and evil.
The only flaw in this production is in the design of Rigoletto’s house. Like a Jenga piece being gently pulled out, one of the buildings glides across the stage to reveal a totally scarlet interior, completely bare save a plain, rickety staircase to the second level. When used in the final act – augmented with a criss-crossed black grating – it works perfectly to give the sinful, carnal vibe needed to show the Duke’s animalistic betrayal. But as Rigoletto’s house it simply doesn’t make sense. The red clashes with the blues and greens of Rigoletto and Gilda, and seems as if it was simply re-used to keep the production under budget.
Fortunately, the all-star cast made this scenic blunder hardly noticeable. Matthew Polenzani does not disappoint with his turn as the devious Duke. A veteran player of the role, his portrayal feels as fresh as if it’s his first time in the Duke’s shoes. He brings a tenderness in the second act that has both Gilda and the audience convinced of his newly demure nature thanks to Polenzani’s famously glossy pianissimos. However, there’s still power in Polenzani’s Duke. His money notes in “La Donna e Mobile” are right on point every time, and serve to show the duke’s true character. After all, as he likes to joke, there are three male voice parts: the bass register, the baritone register, and the cash register.
Rose Feola as Gilda brings a beautiful soprano to the table in the male-dominated show. Her voice, while light and silvery, has a surprising amount of honey-like sweetness in the lower register. While she sometimes struggles to carry over the orchestra below the passagio, this minor detriment is easily forgiven by the piercing power of her high notes, which likely can be heard by passersby on Wacker Drive. Her “Caro Nome,” while a bit over-acted, is expertly sung. Feola is able to bring the control and nuance to the aria necessary to realize its full potential as a breathless delight of new love.
The breakout star of the show is Quinn Kelsey as Rigoletto. A young star with a fast rise in the industry, this role is likely the one that will catapult him to sit among the greats. His earthy, clanging baritone is a needed contrast to his buttery voiced co-stars. He is able to accomplish the most difficult task in all of opera: to infuse emotion into the role without compromising technique. His “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” is heartbreaking partially due to his artistic decision to utilize a plaintive straight-tone in the areas where a controlled vibrato simply can’t express the grief felt by the character. He deftly navigates the many aspects of the nuanced character of Rigoletto, easily switching from acid-mouthed court jester to bereft father without missing a beat. Not only is his singing perfection, but his acting is truly moving, a feat that few opera stars have been able to accomplish.
It’s always a challenge to breathe new life into an oft-done piece, but this production does that and more. A dynamite cast and an insightful design make this production of Rigoletto a can’t miss.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents Rigoletto at The Civic Opera House, 20 N Upper Wacker Dr #400, Chicago, through November 3. More information and tickets may be found here.