The set-up: The dissolute courtiers in Mantua have lost their mojo. In their handsome Elizabethan finery by costumer Peter J. Hall they stand listless during debauchery as if posing for a group portrait by Holbein. They regroup slowly so as not to ruffle their ruffles. They're not alone. The entire production suffers from limpness and lack of vitality. Where's the beef in this Rigoletto? The execution: Houston Grand Opera's staging has been around since 1994, with direction by Harry Silverstein and minimal expanded-box look designed by Tony-winner Michael Yeargan. I remember those previous showings with lots more fire than this one. It looks great, it was sung with conviction by the relatively young cast, and maestro Patrick Summers elicited plenty of thunder from Verdi's textured score, yet this most dramatic of operas, always capable of seducing listeners, just seemed to plod. This is an opera that is never routine.
The world of live entertainment is a constant surprise, and what looks like a goldmine on paper sometimes never quite pans out. That Friday's opening night didn't coalesce as it should have could be due to a multiple of factors. Or not. Ryan McKinny was making his role debut as Rigoletto, tenor Stephen Costello was making his house debut as the Duke, and soprano Uliana Alexyuk, as Gilda, who's appearing concurrently in HGO's The Passenger, replaced Elizabeth Zharoff, who "withdrew from the role for personal reasons." And the weather was bitterly cold. Was it a full moon, too?
Rising star McKinny, so memorable last season as Tristan's pal Kurvenal in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, makes his role debut as the conflicted hunchback Rigoletto, jester to the womanizing Duke. His character arc travels through a wide swathe that includes toadying sycophant, superstitious everyman, vengeful wraith, grief-stricken father. It's quite a part. Coveted by baritones as an operatic peak to be conquered, the role requires years to uncover its riches, to convey all that's in it. A Verdi baritone is a different breed than other composers'. The roles are meaty, hefty, and usually lie higher on the scale. Moving from plummy bass to Verdi's plummy baritone takes time, but McKinny's first attempt is highly admirable, and the promise of what will be is tasty indeed, but he's still finding his way around. That he has found so much so early is high praise. There's no denying his natural stage presence, acting chops, and a rich rounded voice, and you have to start somewhere. His is an upward career to watch - and enjoy with pleasure.
Costello was a handsome Duke, with a knife-edge tenor as clean and defined as his impressive obliques, displayed under his flowing ducal robe. He gets the opera's most famous tune, "La donna è mobile" ("Women are fickle" - or, can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em). The irony, of course, is that this playboy prince is the most inconstant character around, seducing everything in sight. When he turns his libido toward Rigoletto's virginal daughter, all hell breaks loose. His Duke was a beguiling wastral, never once forgetting how devilishly charming he is, and the noblesse oblige that goes with the power.
Alesyuk, poignantly charming as doomed Ivette in The Passenger, has a voice like glass: transparent and crystalline. It cuts through the orchestra and still manages to run up and down the scales with frightening agility and clarity. Her famous coloratura showstopper, Caro nome," ("Sweet name") is her apotheosis to first love, a giddy song from her young heart. Unfortunately, she has fallen for the rake of rakes, the horny duke, and will be crushed by these swirling emotions she doesn't know how to deal with.
As the murderous brother/sister tag-team - hired assassin Sparafucile pimps out his sister Maddelena to lure in his victims - bass Dimitry Belosselskiy, also in his HGO debut, growled and threatened chillingly, while mezzo Carolyn Sproule - incongruously dressed like Carmen - looked appropriately slutty and alluring. She sang like an angel, though.
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Verdi and librettist Piave knew they found a winner in Victor Hugo's censored, scandalous play Le Roi s'amuse (1832). At the world premiere in Paris, the play so shocked the audience that the police closed it down after the first night, and then banned it on stage for more than 50 years.
Verdi butted heads with prissy Austrian censors who controlled Venice's La Fenice, the theater that commissioned the work. After skirmishes that might have wounded anyone lesser, Verdi and Piave plowed ahead, acquiesced to minor changes in period and characters, but stayed firm on showing a deformed hunchback as leading man. The censors gave their approval grudgingly, and Verdi had his first international smash. Rigoletto remains one of the world's most popular operas. Verdi knew what he was doing, and did it better than anyone.
The verdict: This is not a bad performance by any means, but it's not great and certainly not definitive. Routine doesn't do Verdi any favors.
Verdi's early masterwork sings January 29, February 1, February7, and February 9 (matinee) at Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Purchase tickers online at houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-6737. $15-$406.25.