Verdi on the Vile and Violent

Verdi's Rigoletto is an opera of tremendous moral force. Count Monterone is not just an outraged father, but the voice of doom. His solemn curse, which opens and closes the opera, is a judgment on a corrupt, hypocritical world.

From palace to hovel alike, this Machiavellian 16th-century Mantua reeks with violence, licentiousness and cynicism. The courtiers occupy their days abducting wives and daughters for the Duke's pleasure, and snickering outside his bedroom. Even Giovanna, Gilda's duenna, can be bought off, and in Romantic opera, if you can't count on the duenna, you're in trouble. The mood is dark, all of the action taking place either at dusk or deepest night. Only Gilda offsets the unremitting gloom, which makes her radiance all the brighter.

Otherwise the characters are mostly bad, though not entirely so. Court jester Rigoletto is cruel, bitter and revengeful, but he harbors the tenderest feelings toward his daughter, Gilda, and dead wife, and feels victimized by his physical deformity. (He hands us the "What is an ugly hunchback in the Renaissance to do?" line.) The Duke of Mantua is a lout and a lecher, but even he feels humbled by Gilda's purity (or so he would like us to think in his big Act 2 aria-cabaletta, though here Verdi's inspiration flags a bit, making it difficult for the tenor to communicate anything other than sexual heat for the virginal Gilda).

Sparafucile, cold-blooded assassin though he may be, lives by a code of his own: he won't kill a client and be thought of as a thief. His sister Maddalena (like a Carmen who has wandered onto the wrong set) is his merry accomplice, but feels pity for the Duke (she has no problem, though, murdering a total stranger and stuffing him in a sack).

In contrast, Gilda's goodness -- her devotion to her overly protective father and her fidelity to a man who has lied to her, raped her and then cheated on her -- seems Christlike. Perhaps it's no coincidence that she dies at midnight amid thunder and lightning. The unusual thing about her death is that it's unattended and thus unredemptive. The Duke does not stand chastened by her corpse, as one expects in an Italian melodrama; rather, he disappears into the night, singing with cruel irony, "La donna e mobile" ("Woman is fickle"). Sparafucile and Maddalena have closed up shop for the night. The courtiers are probably off abducting the Countess of Ceprano. The tragic lesson is Rigoletto's and ours.

At last Friday's premiere of the current Houston Grand Opera production, Maureen O'Flynn triumphed as Gilda. She gave a wonderfully tender and relaxed performance, even more fully realized than her 1990 HGO debut in the same role. The famous Act 1 aria, "Caro nome" quietly and gently wowed the packed Wortham, and by the aria's end, one could have heard the proverbial pin drop. (Fortunately, during this aria, O'Flynn didn't have to compete with Rigoletto's jangling jester's head or Maddalena's dangling jewelry.)

O'Flynn's voice is a relatively small one, and perhaps not fully suited to Verdi. One can imagine her being better in Mozart or Rossini. Some of her high, sustained notes floated when one would have liked them to soar. But this is mere quibbling; hers is an outstanding performance.

The Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas, making his HGO debut, also impressed as the Duke, turning this somewhat thankless role to good account. His voice is clear, bright, brilliantly focused and finely tuned. He's something of a charmer, too, and rather than portray the Duke simply as a rogue, he brings to the role some humor and vitality, thus helping to explain how Gilda might fall for such a creep.

As Rigoletto, baritone Bruno Pola, also making his HGO debut, had vocal problems, especially in the first act. He sounded uncomfortably throaty and graveled, and had trouble modulating from loud to soft, and from high to middle register. At times, he seemed just able to get through the music, let alone project much subtlety. He came off best when he could simply let go and sing a loud note in his high range.

Gabor Andrasy was the commanding Sparafucile and Suzanna Guzman the appropriately saucy Maddalena. The men's chorus acquitted themselves well, and conductor and music director Vjekoslav Sutej kept things moving along. In the pit, the violins of a very reduced Houston Symphony at times sounded ragged and raucous. In general, the musicians overplayed; in the introduction to "Caro nome," the solo flute practically drowned out O'Flynn.

This new production is better musically than dramatically. Indeed, it's something of a mishmash. The minimalistic sets, with their sliding panels and austere scaffolding, and the harsh, unsettling changes of lighting strike a modern note a la Robert Wilson (though not nearly as polished), while the choreography and elaborate period costumes are quite traditional. Does this production betoken some postmodernist, deconstructionist revisionism? Or simply a communications breakdown?

The modernist sets only made the production's hokey theatrics all the more glaring. Bruno Pola in particular went through an array of old-fashioned, melodramatic gestures that one would have trouble finding outside the opera house: hands alternately clenched and clawlike, arms shielding a cowering body and face expressing every stock gesture of fear and revulsion. Such acting perpetuates the worst stereotypes about opera.

This is a Rigoletto for the ears, not for the eyes.

Rigoletto runs through November 6 at the Wortham Center's Brown Theater, Texas at Smith, 227-2787.


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