Dallas Opera triumphs with Verdi’s dark “Rigoletto

Tue Oct 11, 2022 at 9:03 am
By J. Robin Coffelt
Madison Leonard as Gilda and René Barbera as the Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto at Dallas Opera. Photo: Kyle Flubacker

Dallas Opera opened its season Saturday night with a triumphant performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto that made for one of the best company evenings in recent memory.

Verdi’s grim opera about a cursed, hunchbacked court jester and his beloved, doomed daughter has a gripping plot and soaring music. When combined with excellent singing, solid playing from the Dallas Opera orchestra, and a compelling staging and 1930s-era costuming, the result was the sort of experience that becomes a treasured memory.

Rigoletto is a jester in the Duke of Mantua’s court, who believes that he is the victim of a curse placed upon him by the father of one of the duke’s many conquests. Rigoletto himself has a daughter, Gilda, whom he has carefully hidden from the world, but the Duke sees her at church, his courtiers kidnap her, and he seduces her. Rigoletto hires an assassin to kill the Duke, but Gilda, still in love, intervenes, and the assassin murders her in the Duke’s place. Rigoletto discovers the substitution, which is the realization of the curse, and collapses, devastated, as the curtain falls.

Rigoletto is an opera that relies heavily on strong male voices. René Barbera was absolutely stunning as the Duke—his demeanor and his voice were both sure and commanding. His “La donna è mobile,” in all of its iterations, from full-voiced serenade to sotto voce echo in the finale, was riveting. While the tenor wasn’t entirely credible as Gilda’s lover, It was easier to believe him as a libertine surrounded by loose women.

As Gilda, soprano Madison Leonard was radiant. In her showpiece aria, “Caro nome,” the young soprano’s high notes simply floated through the Winspear. Fortunately, she always communicated her fatal love for the Duke through her singing, since the production didn’t help her onstage. The dubious direction created much of the disconnect—not least Gilda wafting behind a screen as a ghostly apparition in the final scene, rather than dying in her father’s arms.

George Gagnidze’s Rigoletto was perhaps the least impressive voice of the three principals, but that is like saying a Lotus is less powerful than a Ferrari or a Lamborghini. His Rigoletto was a portrayal of both mockery and satire, as a jester in a suit of motley, and pathos, as an outcast hovering on the fringes of noble society, whose deep love for his daughter makes him, ultimately, a sympathetic character.

Madison Leonard as Gilda and George Gagnidze in the title role of Rigoletto at Dallas Opera. Photo; Kyle Flubacker

Raymond Aceto as Sparafucile the assassin had a fearsome swagger that made the audience believe that he was indeed capable of garroting or stabbing a person with ease. Aceto’s vast and powerful bass commanded the stage.

Nadia Krasteva excelled as Sparafucile’s sister Maddelena. In the famous quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore,” she held her own with Leonard, Gagnidze, and Barbera, which was quite a feat. 

Malcolm Payne, Jr.’s Count Ceprano delivered a full and rich portrayal. The large male chorus delivered both convincing acting as well as fine, well-prepared singing under Alexander Rom, creating a backdrop for the action.

The orchestra did sometimes swamp the singers—long an issue even before Emmanuel Villaume’s tenure, Yet for the most part the orchestra sounded terrific under its music director. Some initial messiness in the brass and some difficulty adjusting for the Duke’s rubato in the strings were minor concerns in an otherwise well-played performance.

Costumes by Jessica Jahn evoked the 1930s. Most men wore suits or tailcoats, Rigoletto was attired in traditional motley, while Gilda wore a simple blue cotton dress. Maddelena and the other courtesans were dressed almost like showgirls, providing some welcome color onstage. 

Erhard Rom’s stark, rotating main set placed the Duke’s palace on one side, rotating to Rigoletto’s apartment on the other.

Go see this production. You’ll be glad you did.

Rigoletto runs through October 16. dallasopera.org

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