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Opera in the Heights Serves up Love, Lust, Sex and Violence in Rigoletto

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The set-up: Like the plays of Shakespeare, the operas of Verdi remain as fresh as ever. No matter how many times we see Rigoletto (last season at Houston Grand Opera, to name the most recent production), there is always something new to hear, see, or feel. There are no surprises to the story, even when directors make stuff up so that Verdi and librettist Piave's tale stays relevant, so this old chestnut from 1851 is usually best played straight. That's the way Opera in the Heights presents Verdi's story of love and loss.

The tale is a medieval melodrama of the highest order, adapted from Victor Hugo's play Le roi s'amuse (1832), which did not amuse the French censors, who banned the play for what they perceived to be mocking references to king Louis-Phillipe. Hugo, a champion of free press, sued but lost the battle; the play was banned for 50 years. Throughout his entire career, Verdi butted heads with his own set of censors, and the Austrians who controlled Venice (and its prestigious opera house, Le Fenice) were in no mood to see a monarch, even a French one, mocked or demeaned. They wouldn't allow a musical adaptation without great swathes of the play rethought. Verdi and Piave reset the action to Mantua, made the French king an Italian duke, and amended some minor stage business. That did the trick. Verdi's opera roared onto the stage, an immediate smash. It's never lost its cache.

The execution: The story's ripe for opera, overflowing with revenge, hired assassins, deflowered virgins, familial love, prostitutes, and love gone horribly wrong. No wonder the Austrians were aghast at what Verdi wanted to put on stage, calling the play immoral and obscenely trivial.

The toadying court jester Rigoletto mocks the husbands who've been cuckolded by his employer, the licentious Duke of Mantua. The latest courtier, led off to prison and imminent death, curses the jester with thunderous approbation. What Rigoletto doesn't know is that his virginal daughter Gilda, safely hidden away at home for years, has been spotted by the Duke when she attends mass. She's fallen instantly in love with this cad.

The courtiers, seeking revenge for Rigoletto's constant mockery, wrongly assume that this beautiful girl to be Rigoletto's mistress, so they kidnap her and present her to the Duke. To get his revenge, Rigoletto hires professional thug Sparafucile to kill the Duke. But despite her shame and humiliation, Gilda still loves her rakish nobleman, who's already in the arms of seductive prostitute Maddalena, sister of Sparafucile. Not since the Macbeths has there been such a murderous tag-team. None of this ends well at all.

Set to Verdi's magical music, the opera never stops moving. You may not know the tunes by title, but you've heard the melodies forever. The Duke's "La donna è mobile" ("Woman are fickle") was such a hit that the Venetian gondoliers were singing it right after the first performance. And Gilda's "Caro nome" ("Sweet name") is a coloratura's nightmare of sweet legato phrasing and scale-hurdling gymnastics, all innocence and fragility on the cusp of sexual awakening. To top off this opera, there's that stunning Act IV, unlike anything Verdi had written prior. Set in Sparafucile's lair, with thunder storm raging and the chorus eerily moaning offstage like the wind, this act predicts the future of Italian opera. (Next up for Verdi, Trovatore and Traviata - for sure, opera was never the same again.)

All these marvels, though, can't compete with our present discoveries in the singers. Maestro Enrique has assembled a nimble young cast, some perched on the verge of stardom, who give Verdi a run for his money. It's a surefire ensemble, imbued with feeling and acting up a storm.

What a find in baritone Daniel Scofield, as Rigoletto! Robust and handsome with booming voice in full range, he's the finest court jester I've seen in years. (Baritone Octavio Moreno sings the role in the alternate Ruby Cast). He has fantastic stage presence and knows just the right gesture to make, or rein in, to convey character. Watch how he stands back to savor, and sympathize, when Gilda discovers the Duke's infidelity. He's both appalled and justified. His is a pro's performance, and in an artist making his way through the opera jungle, it's thrilling to witness.

The other blow-away singer is bass Nathan Stark, as thug Sparafucile. The role is short, but meaningful, and Stark's cistern-deep voice is chilling with menace and evil life force. Never once do you doubt that this hired assassin is the real thing.(I missed his first appearance at OH during the 2011 season when he sang the conflicted Philip in Verdi's masterpiece Don Carlo - that's the trouble with double casting - but I'm honored to have heard him now.)

Young soprano Erin Kenneavy, as innocent Gilda, possesses a crystalline tone which suits the pure and virtuous character, well, at least until she sets her eyes on the handsome Duke and it's lust at first sight. Kenneavy started out a tad pinched and without flavor, but her voice opened up after Act I, or maybe she just relaxed. After that she sounded radiant and very much alive. She nailed the treacherous roulades, even though the maestro kept Verdi's showstopper "Caro nome" at snail's pace. She sings without effort, a sure sign of good things to come her way.

Tenor Bernard Holcomb, as free-loving Duke of Mantua, has a fun time with this operatic ne're-do-well. He, too, has a relaxed stage presence that serves him well. He wasn't as comfortable with the Duke's higher passages; he landed the top notes but didn't command them. His acting chops got him through. (Tenor Dane Suarez alternates in the role.) The supporting players were well limned, especially mezzo Alissa Anderson as earthy slut Maddalana; bass Kyle Albertson as ill-fated Monterone, who curses Rigoletto; and tenor Nicholas DeMeo as courtier Bursa. Praise, also, to the OH male chorus who get to sing some of Verdi's finest, most atmospheric passages. Maestro Carréon-Robledo kept Verdi's rich stew bubbling, except for that slo-mo "Caro nome," and the orchestra is a finely tuned as ever under his sure hand. The brass and woodwinds were particularly energetic.

As a physical production, other than vaguely 18th-century costuming, where are we? The set is fairyland, with tree limbs encasing the proscenium and vines threading up the stone staircase; although I liked the minimal side panels that allowed us double vision and didn't get in the way. Nature runs wild in this view, which is a valid enough take on Verdi's revenge story as any other these days. The verdict: With baritone Scofield firmly leading this young, agile cast, Verdi's great Rigoletto receives superlative musical interpretation. If you want lust, love, sex, and violence - it's all here. Down with censors!

Rigoletto continues through October 5 at Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Boulevard. Purchase tickets online atoperaintheheights.org or call 713-861-5303. $13-$63.

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