Story: With his outrageous insults, Rigoletto, the deformed court jester to the womanizing Duke of Mantua, enrages the guests at a party held by the duke, all while his boss pursues any woman he covets.
When the older Count Monterone bursts in on the duke seducing his own daughter, he angrily denounces the younger nobleman. As the duke’s guards lead him away to imprisonment, the count utters a curse on both the duke and the jester for their insolence and insensitivity, saying they will suffer the same fate as he has.
The curse unnerves Rigoletto, and in returning home, he encounters the paid assassin Sparafucile. While refusing Sparafucile’s offer to kill any enemy for a price, Rigoletto promises to keep him in mind for possible future work.
Entering his house, the jester meets his daughter, Gilda, the only person who holds any meaning for him. He has overprotected her to the point that she is allowed out of the house only to attend church services. After he leaves, the duke visits Rigoletto’s home, bribing the girl’s nurse to speak with her. Gilda recognizes him as a young man from church (as the duke has been masquerading as a poor student).
When Rigoletto learns Gilda has fallen in love with the duke, he agrees to join a band of courtiers plotting to kidnap the woman they believe is Rigoletto’s lover, but who is actually Gilda. Blindfolded, Rigoletto unknowingly helps to abduct his own daughter.
Learning what he has done, the jester hires Sparafucile to kill the duke. However, after the duke cavorts with the assassin’s sister, Maddalena, she convinces her brother to murder instead the first stranger to enter their tavern that night. Overhearing this, despite learning of the duke’s infidelities and selfishness, Gilda decides to sacrifice herself to save her lover, much to her father’s shock and anguish.
Highlights: Excellent singing and strong acting propel Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ latest production of Giuseppe Verdi’s 19th-century tragic opera.
Other Info: Based on French writer Victor Hugo’s 19th-century play, Le roi s’amuse (The King Is Amused), Verdi’s opera, first performed in 1851 in Venice, escaped the censors who had closed Hugo’s drama for its anti-aristocratic sentiments after just one performance two decades earlier.
According to the informative article in the troupe’s program, painstaking negotiations between government censors and Verdi’s librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, and his publisher, Ricordi, enabled Rigoletto to be staged, greeted with popular acclaim.
One of the staples in the contemporary operatic canon, Rigoletto was first performed by this troupe in 1981 and again in 2005. For this production, which features an English translation by James Fenton, stage director Bruno Ravella makes his Opera Theatre of Saint Louis debut. Leaving his mark on this version, Ravella moves the setting from 16th-century Italy to late 19th-century France, closer to the 1830s era of Hugo’s original work.
He also conceived the idea of Rigoletto being a ventriloquist, allowing for a clever comparison between the vulgar, public court jester (the dummy) and the lonely, insecure private man, leaving the audience to decide who is actually pulling whose strings in this fractured persona. Additionally, he removes Rigoletto’s hunched back and replaces it with a discolored face, albeit just as challenging for the bitter Rigoletto.
Alex Eales contributes well-crafted scenic designs for each of the story’s three acts, which span about 2½ hours with an intermission, with the dummy sitting alone on a chair before the opening curtain is drawn to the duke’s party, a second act at Rigoletto’s two-story house and the third in Sparafucile’s tavern.
Christopher Akerlind’s lighting enhances the brooding, dark mood, while costume designer Mark Bouman matches attire with appropriate classes and adds a telling touch with the similar threads for Rigoletto and his dummy. Tom Watson provides the accentuating wig and makeup design.
Ravella moves the production compellingly along, aided by strong performances by the players in key parts. Roland Wood delivers both the sarcasm and anguish inherent in the title role, using his brooding baritone to good effect. Soprano So Young Park is affecting as the naive and forgiving Gilda, especially touching in her duets with Wood.
Tenor Joshua Wheeker confidently showcases the venality of the duke in the character’s lusty, self-aggrandizing arias, while Nicholas Newton lends gravity to the wronged count with his imposing bass-baritone voice.
Christian Zaremba’s rumbling bass underscores the creeping nastiness of Sparafucile, contralto Lindsay Ammann conveys the indifferent desires of Maddalena, and Rehanna Thelwell’s mezzo-soprano is effective in the role of Gilda’s nurse.
Ryan Bryce Johnson, Lisa Marie Rogali, Heeseung Chae, William Guanbo Su, Jamie Groote and Randell McGee complete the fine cast.
The troupe’s resident conductor, Roberto Kalb, makes an impressive debut conducting the full run of a mainstage production, leading a persuasive interpretation of Verdi’s accomplished score by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.
Rigoletto remains among the most popular of all operas nearly 170 years after its premiere. Ravella’s interesting take on its characters and his cast’s powerful interpretations make this version an enriching reminder of Verdi’s talents.
Company: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: June 22 and 26 (matinees), 30
Tickets: $25 to $140; contact 314-961-0644 or experienceopera.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5