Verdi's tragedy Rigoletto, being presented by Opera in the Heights, is filled with contrary characters. There's the Duke. An indulgent tyrant, he beds women -- from young, innocent virgins to manipulating women of the court -- as casual entertainment. (The role of the Duke is shared by Dane Suarez and Bernard Holcomb.)
There's the title character, Rigoletto. He's an ugly, hunchbacked court jester who mocks the put-upon husbands who have to stand by and watch as the Duke openly seduces their wives. (Octavio Moreno and Daniel Scofield share the role of Rigoletto.)
There's Gilda, Rigoletto's daughter (played by soprano Erin Kenneavy). Shut away by her father in an effort to protect her from the Duke, Gilda falls in love with a man she sees in church. The man is, of course, the rakish Duke.
The three are on a collision course that will leave one of them dead and one of them brokenhearted. And honestly, we're at a loss as to who to root for.
"That's half the fun - who do I root for? And why am rooting for them?" Kenneavy laughingly tells us.
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"None of these characters are simple just good or just evil. There's no pure black and white to the characters; there's a lot of gray," Kenneavy says.
"That's why these characters are so relatable because they're not two-dimensional. These are dynamic characters. [Gilda] succumbs to the appeal of the Duke. I think a lot of people have done that, done things that they regretted. It's the same thing with Rigoletto. He loves his daughter; he wants to protect his daughter. He's willing to kill other people to do that."
In the end, it's Gilda who dies (no, this isn't a spoiler - it's Rigoletto - everybody knows how it ends). She chooses to die in order to protect the Duke, who, we might note by then has already moved on to another conquest. Kenneavy says she understands that Gilda's taste in lovers is, can we say, questionable. Her loyalty to the skirt-chasing Duke might not the best choice she makes in her young life, but it is understandable.
"When I first looked at the role, I thought she was just a young girl living in a fantasy world and her death is a [just a] romantic [gesture]," Kenneavy tells us. As she explored the role and worked with her castmates and conductor Enrique Carreon-Robledo and stage director Susan Stone Li, she began to develop an appreciation for Gilda's choices and her ultimate sacrifice.
"She has a strong ability to love and a strong ability to hope. She genuinely loves the duke and she genuinely wants to protect him. She tries to do the right thing and in her mind, death is not an end. She looks at it as moving from the earthly world ... to the heavenly world. So death doesn't scare her the way it does other people."
The big death scene at the end of Act III (still not a spoiler) is technically and physically challenging for the singers. Gilda has been stabbed and stuffed in a sack. The sack's dragged across stage and delivered to her father. Rigoletto discovers her almost lifeless body - almost, there are still a few high B's for her to sing - and picks her up in his arms for the final duet. It's all very emotional.
Emotional and warm, apparently. "Oh, my goodness! It's so hot in that sack!" laughs Kenneavy.
Still, it's a highlight for Kenneavy. "My favorite moment has to be the last scene, in terms of meaning and emotion. Being able to look up into my father's eyes and see the love and pain there. And the music is just stunning at that point. I love it."
Rigoletto closes this weekend with performances at 7:30 p.m. on October 2, 3 and 4; 2 p.m. on October 5. Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights. For information, call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights.org. $35 to $67.
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