07 Dec 2012

Rigoletto, Manitoba Opera

Manitoba Opera launched its celebratory, all-Verdi 40th anniversary season with the Italian master’s Rigoletto that still rattles the soul with its tale of revenge, murder, deceit and heart-wrenching pathos.

Its three-performances were held November 24through 30, 2012 at Winnipeg’s Centennial Concert Hall.

Based on Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse (The King Amuses Himself), the three-act opera composed in 1851 is considered one of Verdi’s greatest works also including his (slightly) later Il Trovatore and La Traviata. Its complicated plot set in 16th century Mantua revolves around hunchbacked court jester Rigoletto, torn between defending his cherished only daughter Gilda’s virtue and avenging the lascivious Duke of Mantua who has dishonoured her. But — like any good opera — it also firmly posits the redemptive power of love as well as becomes its own cautionary tale about the vicious games people play.

Any piece of theatre is often only as good as its casting. In this case, a stellar choice of leads directed by former Winnipegger Robert Herriot created a strong production with nary a weak link onstage. Realistic sets designed by Lawrence Schafer (New Orleans Opera) depicting the opera’s respective locales of castle, house and inn helped create effective stage pictures — including a striking opening tableau for the opening party/orgy scene. MO music advisor/principal conductor Tyrone Paterson sensitively led the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra throughout the three-hour evening.

American baritone Todd Thomas’ powerhouse performance as the white-faced, sunken-eyed jester showcased not only his booming voice, but equally mesmerizing acting ability. He subtly nuanced his title character with every emotional shade imaginable, turning instantly on a dime from bitter pitifulness during Act I aria “Pari siamo!” — including self-flagellating while decrying his deformity — to hell-bent fury against all those who torment him.

Winnipeg’s musical treasure, world-class colouratura soprano Tracy Dahl also triumphed in the role of Gilda. The petite singer with a stratospheric voice hit just the right note with her not-so-innocent character desperately longing for love and freedom. Her electrifying Caro Nome, with each note crafted as a multi-faceted jewel rightfully earned sustained applause from the audience. Dahl’s effortlessly sung Act II aria “Tutte le feste al tempio” also displayed her innate gifts as a singing actress, as did touching finale “Chi mai, chi è qui in sua vece?” where she tearfully begs her father for forgiveness.

Newfoundland tenor David Pomerory imbued his lecherous Duke with hotheaded passion and wanton playfulness. He projected his deeply resonant voice well beyond the footlights in opening “Questa o quello«, as well as during Act II’s intricate quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore« sung with Dahl, Thomas and South African-Canadian mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal as seductive harlot Maddalena. Pomerory also filled the opera’s eternally famous aria La donna è mobile with swaggering confidence and ringing high notes that becomes key to its tragic dénouement.

American bass Peter Volpe double-cast as the villainous Count Monterone and assassin Sparafucile created an intriguing doppelgänger worthy of further contemplation. Volpe’s thunderous curse on the jester as the Count during Act I’s ”Ch'io gli parli” would make anyone collapse in fear. His slithery hit man included his declamatory voice sinking to the utter depths in “Quel vecchio maledivami!”

An all-male ensemble from the MO Chorus prepared by Tadeusz Biernacki presented as the velvety-courtiers, crisply enunciating choruses Zitti, ziti and later Possente amor mi chiama. But as pranksters who ultimately drive the action by goading the jester, they often appeared too courtly-mannered, with their relatively stiff staging bypassing many golden opportunities to show their true, nasty stripes.

Bill Williams’ lighting design proved mostly effective despite Act III’s wild storm flashes that appeared too stylized in an otherwise traditional production. And Dahl — especially when costumed in her drab boy’s disguise in the final scene virtually disappeared into the shadows during trio “Ah, più non ragiono!” where she vows to sacrifice herself for her lover.

It might seem a no-brainer for Manitoba Opera to program an entire season of Verdi’s works, especially during its milestone anniversary season that also includes Aida next spring. The composer’s intensely dramatic operas still resonate — for better or worse — with 21st century audiences. Still, MO has made a wise choice in Rigoletto, with its particularly strong cast fearlessly delivering this timeless and ever-tragic tale.

Holly Harris

Click here for cast and production information.