The Vancouver Opera's 40th Anniversary Season
The Queen Elizabeth Theatre; October 16 , 19, 21, 23, 25.
by Roxanne Davies
Guiseppe Verdi said Rigoletto was the best story he had ever put to music. Based on the play Le Roi S'amuse by Victor Hugo, the opera was controversial in its day and was almost banned by the censors. It was frowned upon that royalty be protrayed in such unfavorable light.This, of course, was before the days of tabloids.
This Verdi masterpiece deals with powerful themes : abuse of power, loss of innocence, and distorted minds haunted by a curse. The action takes place in the 16th century ducal court of Mantua in Northeastern Italy, during the same time as Henry VIII, when violence and death were never far away, and fear underscored daily life for everyone.
Clever "Joe Green"not only composed some wonderful melodies but was able to make an operatic hero out of a hunchback jester.The audience is at once appalled by the nasty fellow, yet is also admiring him as the doting father of his lovely daughter. Gilda, the sweet innocent and the womanizing Duke, are classic Verdi roles.
But what makes this opera so different, and to my ears, so appealing, the baddie (the Duke) is a tenor, while Rigoletto is a baritone. I particularly enjoyed the duets between Rigoletto and Gilda. They were so pure and occupied the farthest ends of the tonal spectrum, that the sounds were never muddied.
For those who do not know the plot, here goes. Rigoletto mocks the Count Monterone whose daughter was dishonoured by the Duke. The Count lays a curse on Rigoletto. Meanwhile, the dastardly Duke has seduced Gilda, who believed he was a poor student. Rigoletto encounters a professional murderer, Sparafucile, but has no need of his services.
Courtiers arrive at Rigoletto's home and having blindfolded him, trick him into kidnapping his daughter. Meanwhile, back at the castle, Gilda is ravished by the Duke. Rigoletto swears to avenge her honour, and enlists Sparafucile to murder the Duke. But his sister, Maddalena, falls for the rogue, and Sparafucile arranges to kill the first person who enters the inn. Poor GIlda --wrong place, wrong time. She offers her life for her unworthy lover.
Rigoletto learns too late, that the body in the sack is his dying child. She dies in his arms, as he cries in utter despair "Ah, la maledizione!" ("The Curse!")
The Vancouver Opera staged a very polished production with the help of grand sets from the Seattle Opera, and beautiful costumes from L'Opera de Montreal. I only hope that our opera company can sometimes return the favour and lend something nice too. The two storied stone dwelling was impressive as was the overwhelming statue depicting a ravished damsel in the hands of her tormentor. This statue and the measured and sombre music in brief prelude all set the scene for the sad unfolding of fate.
This opera is full of wonderful tunes, including the imminently hummabler "La Donna e mobile" and "Bella figlia dell'amore" the exquisitly beautiful quartet in Act III featuring the four voices expressing their contrary emotions in utmost tenderness.
African-American baritone Mark Rucker steals the show as Rigoletto, a role which he has claimed as his own. Pavarotti described him as "a major addition to the ranks of Verdi baritones". High praise indeed and very true. He captivated the audience, either swaggering as s brutish clown, or all sweetness and love when he sang with his Gilda, sung by Texas-born soprano, Cheryl Parrish. She gives a wonderfully sweet performance, the beauty to Rigoletto's Beast. How do they manage to hit those high notes while reclining, I'll never know.
Other critics have pointed out that Jianyi Zhang, the Shanghai native, was too light in the role of the evil Duke, and I would have to agree. He really wasn't much to get worked up over, much less for whom Gilda should have sacrificed her life. But each staging is somewhat different.
In some of the first performances, where some producers were more squeamish about the lechery and violence, Gilda emerged from the sack as fit as a fiddle, throwing a wrench into Rigoletto's final anguished cry.
New York bass Stefan Szkafarowsky whose voice has been desribed as dark, grand and massive, is the hired assasin, Sparafucile, and the duets between him and Riogletto are quite powerful. The all male chorus is also excellent, polished and precise, led by Italian guest conductor Marco Guidarini.
All in all, a great show to start the VO's 40th Season!