Story: The Duke of Mantua has a reputation for bedding down as many women as he can in his hedonistic pursuits. While describing to his retainer Borsa the latest woman to catch his fancy -- a young lady he’s seen only in church -- he spies the Countess Ceprano at a party and immediately desires her. He enlists the aid of his hunch-backed court jester, Rigoletto, to distract her husband, Count Ceprano, and Rigoletto obliges with contempt for the cuckolded Count.

Count Monterone arrives at the party incensed with the news that the Duke has seduced his daughter, and places a curse on both the Duke and Rigoletto when they mock him. Rigoletto, who chafes at his subservient position to the licentious Duke, takes solace in the love of his daughter Gilda, whom he over-protects from the world, allowing her only to go to church.

Rigoletto is surprised when Gilda tells him that she has fallen in love with a man she has seen at Mass, not knowing that the man is the Duke. When a band of courtiers contemptuously abducts Gilda, believing her to be Rigoletto’s lover, they hand her over to the Duke, who sees that she is the girl from church.

Learning of Gilda’s meeting with the Duke, Rigoletto hires the assassin Sparafucile to kill his boss, urging Gilda to flee to Venice. However, she returns to save the Duke by having Sparafucile kill her instead. When Rigoletto discovers who has been murdered, he despondently recalls Monterone’s curse.

Highlights: Jordan Shanahan, who was remarkable a few years back in Union Avenue Opera’s superior production of Dead Man Walking, equals that performance with a brilliant interpretation of the tortured, tragic title character in UAO’s rendition of Rigoletto. Under Tim Ocel’s penetrating and powerful direction, UAO’s Rigoletto becomes a poignant and memorable operatic experience.

Other Info: Conductor Scott Schoonover elicits a powerful reading of Giuseppe Verdi’s brooding score by the Union Avenue orchestra that underlines the pathos of the tortured title role played so effectively by Shanahan. First performed in Venice in 1851, with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave that was based on a play by Victor Hugo, Rigoletto is a hauntingly tragic tale that relies on a singer who can convincingly act out the heartache and misery of the ridiculed hunchback.

To his credit, baritone Shanahan has the acting gravitas to pull off a strong interpretation of the title character, thus elevating the entire presentation. His singing is powerfully persuasive and his performance as the jaded jester elicits sympathy, even considering some of Rigoletto’s less flattering attributes (mocking Count Ceprano, arranging a murder, etc.).

James Callon makes an impressive UAO debut as the self-centered Duke. His rich tenor fully envelops the famous aria, La donna e mobile, at the beginning of Act III, and his duets with Lacy Sauter as Gilda are handsomely delivered.

Sauter, who finely captured the neurosis of the fragile Blanche DuBois in last season’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire, shines here as the sheltered Gilda, expressing the faithful daughter’s devotion to her father as well as her growing love for her unknown young man.

Patrick Blackwell’s imposing baritone commands the stage as the wronged Count Monterone intent on avenging his daughter’s seduction, while Mark Freiman’s bass resonates throughout the auditorium as the mercenary Sparafucile.

There’s fine work by Kristee Haney in her UAO debut as Sparafucile’s opportunistic sister Maddalena, Debby Lennon as Gilda’s dutiful nurse Giovanna, Anthony Heinemann as the doltish Borsa and Robert Garner as the conniving courtier Marullo.

Andy Papas and Eleanora Benedict portray the Count and Countess Ceprano, with Rebecca Hatlelid and Winston Sullivan in minor roles as a page and herald, respectively.

Kyra Bishop’s dark, foreboding set design is a good match for the tragic story, suitably complemented by Paige Seber’s lighting. Teresa Doggett’s costumes appear to match the 15th century setting exquisitely in their rich detail, and whoever did the makeup on Shanahan’s face deserves kudos as well.

Ocel’s direction is impeccably paced, aided by two intermissions that keep the production’s two and a half hours flowing smoothly and maintaining interest throughout. Tight direction, strong singing and credible acting make UAO’s presentation of Rigoletto an achingly effective realization of Verdi’s memorable music and Hugo’s touching tale.

Opera: Rigoletto

Company: Union Avenue Opera

Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 North Union Blvd.

Dates: August 7, 8

Tickets: From $15 (student rush ticket) to $52; contact 361-2881 or unionavenueopera.org

Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of John Lamb

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