What is it about "Rigoletto" that causes tin-eared stage directors to paint graffiti all over the opera? The new production that opened last month at the Metropolitan Opera, which wags promptly dubbed the "Rat Pack 'Rigoletto,' " updates the story from 16th century Mantua, Italy, to a Las Vegas casino of the 1960s run by Frank Sinatra. Not so long ago, Lyric Opera turned the work into a revisionist screed about 19th century male subjugation of women that had nothing to do with the masterpiece Giuseppe Verdi wrote.
In that context, the traditionally conceived "Rigoletto" that returned to the Lyric repertory Monday night at the Civic Opera House looks almost radical. An ugly story with beautiful music, about what happens once the father of a dishonored daughter places a curse on the hunchbacked jester, Rigoletto, who mocked his misery, is allowed to play out more or less as the composer and librettist Francesco Maria Piave envisioned it. What a concept!
First seen in 2006, this "Rigoletto" again has some tradeoffs in casting, and the name of Stefano Vizioli, the original director, has been taken off the credits, replaced by Stephen Barlow's. But Robert Innes Hopkins' handsome turntable set remains, along with Jane Greenwood's sumptuous period costumes and Duane Schuler's atmospheric lighting. And in Albina Shagimuratova, the superb Russian soprano who was making her Lyric debut as Gilda, the company has found a shining star indeed. She walked away with the show.
Gilda is, of course, one of the great coloratura soprano roles in Italian opera, and Shagimuratova fulfilled its every requirement thrillingly. She traced the florid phrases of "Caro nome" with meltingly expressive phrasing, ample colorings and a clear, shining, beautiful sound that carried easily over the orchestra. Where full-bodied lyricism was needed, notably in Gilda's two duets with her father, her singing went straight to the heart.
Indeed, Gilda's dying fade to a hushed pianissimo held the audience at rapt attention at the very end. Not for nothing did the soprano receive a rapturous standing ovation on opening night. Get used to the name; you can be sure Lyric will be inviting her back.
Lyric is dividing the title role between two baritones, Andrzej Dobber and Zeljko Lucic, of whom Dobber was first at the plate on Monday. His gruff, burly baritone suited Rigoletto's big showpiece, "Cortigiani," in which the jester railed at and pleaded with the courtiers who have abducted his beloved daughter to reveal where she's hidden. The Polish baritone projected fury more convincingly than he did paternal tenderness, however, and this proved a drawback when it came to eliciting the audience's pity.
Lucic will take over Rigoletto's motley and rattle for the performances beginning March 14.
Suave and handsome, Giuseppe Filianoti cut a credibly rakish figure as the Duke of Mantua, the opera's serial seducer, who for some reason was directed to greet a palace gathering in his underwear (and in the royal bedroom, at that). Some of the Italian tenor's singing was supple, stylish and musical. But he suffered a calamitous ascent of the vocal line during the disguised Duke's amorous duet with Gilda in the first act, and although his singing gained in vocal security by the time the opera's greatest hit, the swaggering aria "La donna e mobile," arrived, the absence of a firm top seriously compromised his performance.
Both conductor Evan Rogister and director Barlow, both of whom making their Lyric debuts, kept animation at the forefront, in the pit as well as on stage. Rogister shaped Verdi's masterful score with the warmth, flexibility and rhythmic point that are the music's lifeblood, although a few of his tempos appeared to press the singers. The orchestra distinguished itself in the quality of its playing, while the chorus of courtiers and ladies, looking resplendent in their jerkins, puffy pants and billowing gowns, also sounded well prepared. Ian Robertson was the guest chorus master.
Facilitating the quick pacing of the drama was Hopkins' artful set, a domed Renaissance palace of painted stucco that revolved to become Rigoletto's humble abode and, later, the seedy inn where the jester's plot to avenge the Duke's ruination of Gilda backfired tragically. The high perimeter of the dome afforded space for various ominous figures to spy and eavesdrop on the darkly unfolding action.
Andrea Silvestrelli, he of the cavernous, pitch-black basso, was aptly menacing as the hired assassin, Sparafucile. The alluringly dusky-voiced American mezzo Nicole Piccolomini, in her house debut, smoldered sexily as Sparafucile's sister and partner in crime, Maddalena.
Included in the capable supporting cast were Ryan Opera Center members Evan Boyer and Tracy Cantin as the Count and Countess Ceprano, John Irvin as Borsa, Joseph Lim as Marullo, J'nai Bridges as Giovanna and Emily Birsan as a page. Todd Thomas blustered effectively as Monterone.
Lyric Opera's production of Verdi's "Rigoletto" runs through March 30 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive; $32-$239; 312-332-2244, ext. 5600; lyricopera.org.
Met's 'Parsifal,' live in HD
The Lyric has announced a new production of Wagner's final music drama, "Parsifal," for next season. Meanwhile, another new production, by the French Canadian director Francois Girard, is playing at the Metropolitan Opera. It stars German tenor Jonas Kaufmann as the eponymous "holy fool," Rene Pape as Gurnemanz, Katarina Dalayman as Kundry, Peter Mattei as Amfortas and Evgeny Nikitin as Klingsor. Daniele Gatti conducts.
The Met will transmit a live performance of its new "Parsifal" to local movie theaters beginning at 11 a.m. Central Time on Saturday. (Consult theaters for the day and time of the rebroadcast.) The performance is part of "The Met: Live in HD" series.