Verdi\'s&nbsp;<em>Rigoletto</em>&nbsp;at Houston Grand Opera
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Review: Rigoletto | Houston Grand Opera | Wortham Theater Center

Standing Still

At Houston Grand Opera, Verdi's Rigoletto is beautifully sung, but has a hard time overcoming a static staging.

published Thursday, January 30, 2014

Photo: Lynn Lane/Houston Grand Opera
Verdi's Rigoletto at Houston Grand Opera


Houston — Verdi's Rigoletto is one of the all-time favorites of opera buffs, as well as a great introduction to the joys of opera for a first-timer. While there is still a dead soprano when the curtain falls, Rigoletto is not a three-hanky tragedy like Madame Butterfly, or a searing drama with hours concerning the foibles of the gods. It is a parable about the high price of revenge, which can bounce back and cause more problems for the perpetrator than for the target. The Houston Grand Opera excels as they present a sturdy Rigoletto: effective sets and marvelous costumes that come from a co-production with the Dallas Opera, and a cast of exciting next-generation singers.

This review is based on the performance viewed at the Sunday afternoon matinee on Jan. 26.

The opera is based on a play by Victor Hugo, Le roi s'amuse (translates to “the king amuses himself”), turned into an opera libretto by Verdi's usual collaborator, Francesco Maria Piave. Back then, a play that held royalty up to ridicule had troubles with censorship and Hugo's 1832 play was no exception. Although it is about King Francis I of France (1494-1547), a notorious skirt-chaser, the French censors of Hugo's day thought that is was a thinly veiled reference to King Louis-Phillipe (1772-1850). In their defense, it was a difficult time for royalty, buffeted and beheaded as they were by the revolution. Hugo's play was shut down the day after it opened.

Verdi and Piave also ran into censors, in this case from the Austrians, who ruled over Northern Italy at the time. The solution they came up with was to change the King to a minor Duke. Best yet, they made him the Duke of Mantua from the House of Gonzaga, which hadn't existed for quite a while. Goodbye King, hello Duke of Nowhere. Rigoletto premiered in March of 1851 at La Fenice. This is a legendary opera house in Venice that has seen an amazing number of premieres since it opened 1792 and, despite being burned to the ground and rebuilt a couple of times, is still presenting a season today.

The physical part of production works on many levels as it combines disparate elements. My review of the production when last seen in Dallas is here.

The production is a bit schizophrenic. It is as if the set from one production arrived with the costumes from another one mistakenly included. The set, by Michael Yeargan, is a series of proscenium-sized nesting boxes that push inwards upstage. This popping panorama is painted with a thunderstorm at times and at others, a pastoral blue sky dotted with fluffy clouds, such as appear in the surrealist paintings of René Magritte.

Photo: Lynn Lane/Houston Grand Opera
Verdi's Rigoletto at Houston Grand Opera

On the other hand, the costumes by the late, great Peter J. Hall, are full-out high Renaissance: tights, pleated collars and luxurious velvets. Thankfully, we can see the costumes because Steven Strawbridge's lighting designs keep everything visible; often non-realistic sets are too dark. He also eschews overly specular highlights.

Perhaps the point of this production is presenting the action, made real by the costumes, but isolated from reality by the surreal sets. In this plausible scenario, it resembles a miniature marionette theater inhabited by singers from the 1989 movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Maybe I had it right back in my 2011 review when I described it this way: “Set against this timeless and expressionist image, the late Peter Hall’s magnificent period costumes create a surreal effect. It is as if the actors have been plucked, á la Twilight Zone, from their own time and place to play out the drama in a nightmarish alternate universe.”

Back then, Harry Silverstein's static staging seemed to add to the effect. It was as if the actors were like chess pieces, transfixed until moved for a definite purpose and then left, unmoving, in their new position until needed. Whatever created the difference between then and now, and maybe it is only me, seeing it again in Houston, “static” lost its surrealistic charm and became frozen and boring.

In this incarnation of the production, it appears that all of the cast and chorus have an assigned spot to stand at every entrance and a movement to another assigned spot. But it was not this stand-around aspect of the staging that was bothersome. After all, it didn't detract in the Dallas production.

In this production, the lack of physical movement, driven by the situations, and the muted interaction of the relationships, transforms Verdi's hot, flashing oil colors into bland, smudgy pastels. This is not to say that a lot of running around, for its own sake, would have improved things.

Individual performances will always be able to transcend a lack of directorial guidance and every member of the cast rises to the occasion at one time or another. When this occurrs, they give a burst of energy to the proceedings, but it only highlights the paucity of sparks elsewhere.

Fortunately, there are plenty of sparks in the singing.

Many of the voices onstage are in the “huge” category. The big voice standard is set by Victoria Livengood as Giovanna, Gilda's lady's maid, who causes all the trouble by not being more effective as Rigoletto's secret watchdog. (She is also impressive in the concurrent HGO production of The Passenger.) This is not a major role, but she makes the most of it. From her first notes, the shear size of her voice caused more than a few eyes to pop.

Baritone Reginald Smith Jr. is also unanimously voted into the Big Voice Club as he delivers an excellent performance as Marullo. Dmitry Belosselskiy, as the assassin for hire, Sparafucile, also possesses a huge voice of great depth. As his sister Maddalena (and the willing bait in his murder-for-hire business), Carolyn Sproule not only shows off her excellent mezzo soprano voice, as well as her considerable physical charms, but she delivers the most spirited performance of the evening.

All four singers mentioned above should be added to any opera-lover's watch list.

The role of Rigoletto is a usually a career pinnacle for a bass-baritone, one you grow into throughout a distinguished career and then sing it when you are at the height of your vocal and dramatic abilities. Ryan McKinny is, instead, at the beginning of a career—albeit a major one—as validated by a Metropolitan Opera debut in 2011.

In this production, there is little evidence of the buff McKinny that you can see on the barihunks website. Here, he is a scrawny and misshaped character with legs made spindly by black tights. He is a pathetic and not very funny court jester, who ridicules others as much as they ridicule him. He fully inhabits his take on character that he creates and is he believable every second. Even at this nascent place in his career, his resonant voice and nuanced expression gives us a fully formed and unique interpretation of the role. How he will sing it 10 years from now is eagerly anticipated.

As an actor, he does the some of the best work of anyone working within the static staging. He is at his best in the duet with Gilda, his daughter, whom he has carefully hidden away from the prying eyes, and other body parts, of the randy nobles at court. At the end, when he holds her dying body in his hands, the backfire of his obsession with taking murderous revenge on the Duke for seducing her, his anguish is terrible to behold.

Earlier in the opera, back when she was still alive, the Gilda created by Uliana Alexyuk, is vocally amazing. She was a last-minute replacement, borrowed from the cast of The Passenger, which means she sang multiple shows on adjacent days. Consider the challenges presented of singing such diametrically separated roles in two operas that couldn't be more different. But Gilda is a perfect fit at this stage of her career (and maybe always). The coloratura flights that Verdi wrote for the role are sung like shivers of the exhilaration of first love, rather than showoffy cadenzas. She sings the role so effortlessly, and in such a natural manner, that it’s easy to forget all about of its difficulties.

The pivotal role of the Duke is sung by Steven Costello, a lyric tenor whose career trajectory is straight up. This is not assisted by spectacular leaps, but by inexorability advanced by delivering one solid performance after another. Here, he does that again. His is not one of the meatball-and-spaghetti tenor voices, known for one or two swoon-worthy high notes. His voice is much more flexible.

He has enough Italian sequelando to pop out some thrilling high notes where Verdi gives them to the tenor as gifts. But Costello's singing is not about waiting around for the end of “Nessun Dorma.” His exemplary performance in the world premiere of Moby-Dick at the Dallas Opera (and now elsewhere) could never have been sung by the one-note wonders. Costello can sing a wide range of repertoire: from Mozart to Massenet, Schütz to Stravinsky. Someday, he may move into the spinto repertoire, but right now, he is one of the best lyric tenors in the business.

Both he and Alexyuk do not posses the same level of monster voices that surround them in this production. Thus, they sound a little underpowered when singing in the larger scenes. However, when they are alone, knocking their famous arias out of the park or together in their soaring duet, you put their vocal production back into a more reasonable perspective.

Costello's Duke especially suffers from a lack of interesting staging. His frat boy aria, “Questa o quella” (“this one or that one”—meaning women, of course) is sung with testosterone-laden virility. However, he is given no directorial business whatsoever to do during his stirring delivery. He has to sing this popular paean to profligacy planted between two proper ladies without a whiff of sexual energy, except for what Costello generates vocally. His duet with Gilda is another marvelously sung moment, but lacks the sparks expected from young lovers. This electricity is hard to muster when the two of them are stuck standing for most of it in the trite one-in-front-of-the-other pose that is right out of frothy operettas.

The chorus, trained by Richard Bado, is also on the now quite extensive singing-excellently-but-not-doing-much-dramatically list. They stand around most eloquently, mostly ignoring the action going on right in front of them.

Patrick Summers leads his superb orchestra in a musically taut and Verdi-friendly performance. He is always on top of the text and constantly inspiring the participants to surpass themselves. He gives the singers lots of room for personal interpretative gestures and lets high notes take on a life of their own. This is possible because his orchestra is always right with him. Intonation is also exemplary. This is exactly what you want in an opera conductor. More becomes less.

There was a time when magnificently sung performances by outstanding opera stars, no matter how static and physically miscast, was the stuff of dreams by rhapsodic fans. A middle-aged and over-fed Tebaldi and Pavarotti, cast as young starving lovers, for one example, would cause near riots by the singer's devoted claqueurs.

This production is sung by artists who look exactly like you hope they would, saving the performance with their dramatic instincts as actors. But, it is still a performance in which the sets, costumes and the singing are the takeaway.

Fortunately, those three aspects are glorious.

Photo: Lynn Lane/Houston Grand Opera
Verdi's Rigoletto at Houston Grand Opera
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Standing Still
At Houston Grand Opera, Verdi's Rigoletto is beautifully sung, but has a hard time overcoming a static staging.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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