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Tears of a Clown

Verdi's Rigoletto may be the best medicine for the world-weary

Because Verdi's Rigoletto so closely resembled Le roi s'amuse, Victor Hugo's irreverent play that was banned in Paris, it took two rewrites before Francesco Maria Piave could come up with a libretto good enough for the Venetian censors. The opera tells of the agony of a depraved jester whose daughter's life is ruined by the lecherous duke he serves. Although critics panned it after the premiere in Venice in 1851, the public loved Rigoletto and has clamored for it ever since.

Art can be an antidote for the world-weary, and Verdi's most lyrical and tuneful work is perhaps the best medicine of all. The opening night crowd at the Brown Theater had been primed from the start for a memorable performance. During the shuffle to be seated, all eyes were drawn to Old Glory draped over the stage curtain. Before the show began, Houston Grand Opera executive director David Gockley acknowledged the post-September 11 tension and invited the audience to sing the national anthem. It set the emotional tone for the evening.

Aside from Dmitri Hvorostovsky's awkward carriage of what is supposed to be Rigoletto's barely perceptible hunchback, the company's rendering of Verdi's poignant Shakespearean portrait offers rare vocal ornamentation and deft leadership by music director Patrick Summers. The show's pristine Renaissance staging and lushly lit set are a credit to director Frank Corsaro and the rest of the creative team.

The story of Rigoletto takes place in Mantua, Italy, in the 16th century. The opening scene finds the Duke of Mantua (tenor Robert Aronica) flagrantly courting the wife of Count Ceprano (bass Joshua Winograde). When the count hears the hunchbacked Rigoletto blithely suggest that the duke consider beheading him to more easily seduce the countess, Ceprano vows revenge. Ceprano and others blame the jester for corrupting the duke and teaching his courtiers to practice the depraved lifestyle of preying on innocent women.

When Count Monterone (bass-baritone George Cordes) realizes the duke and Rigoletto have corrupted his daughter, he places a curse on the jester. Tormented by the curse, a superstitious Rigoletto takes steps to further protect his only daughter, Gilda (soprano Laura Claycomb), who is already a prisoner in his house. His fate is sealed, though, when she refuses to obey him. She soon gives in to her feelings for the disguised, womanizing duke and loses her innocence. Eventually she sacrifices her life for the duke, deepening Rigoletto's anguish and shame.

Off-the-wall stage direction runs rampant in opera houses these days, but Corsaro's evenhanded directing only enhances the vocal performances and never once overshadows them. Appearing as a smaller than usual and relatively nondeformed jester, Hvorostovsky achieves a startling range of troubled emotions using his sleek, robust baritone. But the Russian's hunchback is inconsistent, more or less lopsided at various points in the opera.

Although he sounded a little stiff during the opening scenes, Aronica's rendering of the fickle Duke of Mantua is impressive, especially in the second and third acts. But Claycomb's Gilda offers the spark that almost blurs any memory of his well-sung "La donna mobile," the tune that became a hit immediately after the opera opened in 1851. Her limpid, ethereal coloratura achieves a breadth capable of uplifting heavy spirits. Her showpiece aria "Caro nome" brought unceasing applause, and her final bow took the standing ovation.

The three leads complement deft solos with a powerful performance of Verdi's compelling quartet in Act III. Here, intimate fondling between the duke and the brazen Maddalena is witnessed by an angry Rigoletto and a shocked Gilda. During the quartet, each singer telegraphs a different emotion.

Bass Raymond Aceto creates a quietly formidable Sparafucile, the assassin Rigoletto hires to do away with the duke. As Maddalena, Sparafucile's sister, singer Stephanie Novacek's dark mezzo-soprano sounds as sultry as her physical overtures toward the duke. Cordes's delivery of Monterone's fatalistic curse comes across as lyrically haunting. And the production features robust performances by three HGO studio artists: Winograde as Count Ceprano, soprano Kristin Reiersen as Countess Ceprano, and mezzo-soprano Angela Niederloh singing the role of Giovanna, Gilda's governess.

It is fortunate and fitting that HGO chose the Shakespeare of grand opera to kick off its first big show of the season, during difficult times.

 
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