A stellar cast carries Houston Grand Opera’s flashy gangland “Rigoletto”

Sat Oct 19, 2019 at 2:21 pm
By Steven Brown
Michael Mayes was devastating in the title role of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” Friday night in Houston Grand Opera’s production. Photo: Lynn Lane

By updating Rigoletto to the 1920s or ’30s, stage director Tomer Zvulun gives a gangsterish twist to Giuseppe Verdi’s tale of men behaving badly. 

A program note specifies Mussolini’s Italy as the setting, but there isn’t a Fascist blackshirt in sight. A viewer could just as readily see Houston Grand Opera’s production, which opened at the Wortham Theater Center on Friday, as unfolding on this side of the Atlantic.

The women who party with the Duke of Mantua and his courtiers in the first scene are dolled up like Flapper era floozies. The men sport white-tie formalwear, but the fancy duds can’t disguise their thuggish ways: When Monterone, father of a woman seduced by the duke, interrupts the revelries and denounces him, the courtiers beat the old man up, and the duke delivers the coup de grace with a pistol shot.

Set pieces like that make for potent theatrics, but whether they get to the heart of the story is another matter. Do they shed new light on why another of the duke’s casualties — Gilda, daughter of court jester Rigoletto — sacrifices her life at the opera’s climax to save the duke’s? Do they explain how paternal love, overprotection and vengefulness tangle within him to put an assassin in her path? They do not.

That’s where Verdi’s music takes over, and HGO entrusts it to a cast that’s as powerful and eloquent as any the company has fielded in recent years.

Baritone Michael Mayes, replacing the ailing Brian Mulligan, cut a commanding figure both vocally and visually as the hunchback Rigoletto on Friday. Changing from his jester outfit to street clothes during the “Pari siamo” monologue, Mayes’ Rigoletto examined his misshapen limbs, while his massive voice revealed the coiled, explosive urges lurking beneath the character’s physical infirmities.

And when Rigoletto’s anger and anguish burst, Mayes’ voluminous, resonant tones filled the theater. They lent visceral force to Rigoletto’s “Cortigiani” aria, as the desperate father confronted the courtier gang after Gilda’s kidnapping, and they welled up again to give a hellbent intensity to the father-daughter revenge duet. Mayes’ physical presence — not only when Rigoletto lashed out, but in a couple of falls — accented Rigoletto’s ferocity.

But in Rigoletto’s first scene with Gilda, before the trouble broke out, Mayes scaled back those immense tones to sing with a warmth and breadth that exuded Rigoletto’s paternal love. As the fearsome events unfolded, the sheer depth of Mayes’ voice lent a desperate fervor even to lyrical moments. 

At times, especially in the last scene, Mayes’ singing took on a heaviness that signaled the faltering of Rigoletto’s spirit in the face of his hardships. But the opera’s final moments brought one last, full-throated cri de coeur — including an interpolated high A-flat sailing out through the orchestral blaze.

The role of Gilda may once have belonged to light sopranos, but Mané Galoyan brought it a richness of voice that, alongside the heft of Mayes’ Rigoletto, made Gilda for once sound like her father’s daughter.

In Gilda’s first scene with the youth she thinks is a penniless nobody — actually the skirt-chasing duke — Galoyan’s warm, vibrant singing captured the depth of Gilda’s feelings for him. Thanks to Galoyan’s richness, as well as a flowing pace aided by conductor Jordan de Souza, “Caro nome” went beyond sweetness to convey Gilda’s ardor and commitment. At the aria ascended to its close, Galoyan’s silvery pianissimos shined a fresh light on Gilda’s emotional transports.

When the duke, having seduced and discarded Gilda, returns her to Rigoletto, Galoyan’s full, vibrant singing made her “Tutte le feste” into a groundswell of anguish. And in the last scene, as Gilda resolves to let the killer Sparafucile assault her rather than the duke, Galoyan’s voice surged atop the ensembles — including the famous Quartet — to lend Gilda heroic stature.

Tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz brought the duke’s music a wealth of ringing tone, lyrical fluency and youthful vigor. He tossed off the first- and last-act arias, “Questa o quella” and “La donna è mobile,” with a swaggering energy that left no doubt about the duke’s licentious drive. 

But in the love duet with Gilda, Chacón-Cruz’s smooth, ardent singing also left no doubt how the innocent Gilda could have fallen for the duke’s avowals. In the duet’s most tender moments, Chacón-Cruz spun out the ornate vocal lines with a finesse that doesn’t always go along with tenor voices of such ring. And after Gilda’s kidnapping — but before the duke’s courtiers deliver her to him — Chacón-Cruz brought “Ella mi fu rapita” an agitation and impact that hinted that the duke may actually have had feelings for her.

The supporting roles came across just as compellingly. Bass Nicholas Newton brought a hearty dose of enraged-father impact to Monterone’s curses — and there’s no need to divulge here how director Zvulun resurrected the slain father for the last salvo. As Maddalena, the object of the duke’s affections in the last act, mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams’ juicy voice and lusty presence helped the story’s final twists register potently.

Bass David Shipley didn’t make the killer-for-hire Sparafucile a particularly menacing figure, but he sang resonantly. As the ringleaders of the duke’s courtiers, tenor Richard Trey Smagur and baritone Geoffrey Hahn — as Borsa and Marullo, respectively — drove the mischief animatedly. 

The men of the HGO Chorus not only threw themselves into the courtiers’ antics with vigor, but they generally managed to sing with lightness and zip all the while. Conductor de Souza brought out Rigoletto’s sweep while nevertheless making room at times for the singers to savor the score’s poetry. The HGO Orchestra’s crispness and transparency served both ends, and some expressive solos — including the plaintive oboe in “Tutte le feste” — added their own poetry.

Designer Erhard Rom’s sets, dominated by towering Corinthian columns and a massive staircase, set a scene of courtly grandeur while leaving plenty of room for the partying and trickery. Jessica Jahn’s costumes — from the party girls’ glittering outfits to Gilda’s humble dress and Rigoletto’s multicolored jester outfit — helped characterize everyone. But the tragic tale really depended on HGO’s cast to put it across.

Rigoletto runs through Nov. 1 at Wortham Theater Center. Baritone Scott Hendricks portrays the title role beginning Oct. 29. houstongrandopera.org; 713-228-6737

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