Verdi’s Rigoletto is built to be great. Love, revenge, and murder supported by an expert score that anticipates every nuance on stage makes this opera not only beloved, but practically fool-proof. Houston Grand Opera’s Rigoletto, a co-production with The Dallas Opera, leans on the inherent strength of this opera a bit too much. While the singing and set elicited a shrug, a breathtaking third act finally showed HGO’s talent for Verdi.
As if in a whirlwind of genius, Verdi wrote this opera in forty days. Knowing how successful it was going to be, he even withheld the famous “La Donna e Mobile” aria until right before the performance so that it wouldn’t get leaked. And, as he predicted, it blew his audience away at the 1851 premiere in Venice.
The plot is timeless: A barefaced womanizer, the Duke of Mantua runs through as many women in a day as most people do cups of coffee. One woman, after being tossed out by the Duke, dies of shame, and her father flies in a rage to confront the Duke. He is, instead, greeted by the teasing Rigoletto, and the father hurls a curse on his head. The curse works through the second act, and at the close, Rigoletto is holding the dead body of his own daughter—a scene that rarely fails to evoke sensational agony.
Whether due to the cold snap or the quick casting change, the singing was average. Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, in the title role of Rigoletto, struggled a bit to project. As Kurwenal in Tristan and Isolde last season his voice was an absolute force, but as Rigoletto, his voice and acting came off as stuck. Due to personal reasons, Elizabeth Zharoff was replaced by Uliana Alexyuk as the angelic Gilda. Alexyuk captured the purity of Gilda well—a soprano with a unique bell-like quality—but apart from some supreme high notes, her notes were often flat and her acting without animation.
The exception was Stephen Costello, who ruled brazenly as the Duke of Mantua with a tenor voice of steel. Normally, when a handsome but unprincipled Duke tries the pick-up line “Love brings us closer to angels,” it’s going to end with a drink in his face. Not so with Costello’s voice, which has a golden timbre hard to resist.
The set was underwhelming. An accordion frame-work of squares set the stage. A two-story box rolled in from one side in the second act as Rigoletto’s apartment and from the opposite side in Act Three as the assassin Sparafucile’s shack. The lighting shifted from dim blues, yellows, and reds unremarkably. The most stunning visual effect came in the first few minutes when, during the overture, a shockingly red box opened up in the middle of the stage where Rigoletto was leering at himself in a giant mirror. It set the whole mood of the opera—a violent glimpse of inner consciousness that comes to fruition, finally, in Rigoletto’s closing lines “weeping my life’s blood behind the jester’s mask.”
The last scenes, set off by ominous chimes, revitalized this opera. Conductor Patrick Summers consistently proved his expertise throughout, but here especially, when the emotional mood is already so delicate but charged. When Rigoletto dragged the body bag across the stage, still ignorant his daughter had taken the place of the Duke inside, the chorus hummed that chromatic line so eerily alongside the strings in the same melodic arc that I actually shivered. Whether it was Verdi’s initial genius or the work of this production, the third act—exceptional, despairing, ethereal—was absolutely smashing.
You can catch Houston Grand Opera’s production of Rigoletto January 24 – February 9. For tickets and more info, check out their website.