It's the practice at Lyric and other major opera houses to occasionally do productions that call for comparatively little in the way of rehearsal time and money--which conserves those scarce resources for the flashier shows of the season. So it is with a feeling of dread that the habitual operagoer approaches a revival of this chestnut's 1971 production. Rigoletto, one of Verdi's classic potboilers, has not been treated kindly by the Lyric over the last 20 years. But--wonder of wonders--this revival is one of the more enjoyable shows this season. In spite of Lyric's low-budget approach, the audience seemed to enjoy it more than any other Lyric offering so far this year.
Victor Hugo's play Le roi s'amuse might as well have been written specifically as the basis of a blood-and-thunder opera by Verdi. The tale of the hunchbacked court jester who is the evil genius of his patron but a loving father to his daughter passed virtually unchanged through the hands of Verdi's librettist Francesco Maria Piave. In an allegorical device favored by moralistic storytellers, the external deformity of Rigoletto is meant to mirror his character. The crucial irony of Hugo's original drama lies in the destruction of all that Rigoletto values through the Duke of Mantua's debaucheries--which Rigoletto has encouraged. He mocks the duke's victims, but then his own daughter is kidnapped and turned over to the duke by courtiers who have felt the sharp tongue of the jester once too often. In revenge, Rigoletto arranges for the assassination of the duke--but the plot miscarries, and he discovers that he has engineered the murder of his daughter.
Unfortunately, the compressed operatic form obscures Rigoletto's Svengalian tendencies. Moreover, he's not onstage being nasty for very long, and the music in his scenes with Gilda distinctly portrays him as a most loving father. So the average operagoer feels more sympathy for him than he merits.
The original story, set in France in the early 16th century, was based on the reign of Francis I. Indeed, the most famous aria of the work, the tenor's last-act "La donna e mobile," is an Italian translation of verse written by Francis I. To get the opera past Austrian censors, Verdi readily agreed to move the setting to 16th-century Italy and reduce the king to a duke--ducal misconduct evidently being less offensive to the censors than kingly transgressions.
The weakness of Lyric's Rigoletto lies in the aging sets, designed by Pier Luigi Pizzi and built in 1971. They are reasonably bland, though Pizzi has a penchant for indoor heroic statuary. But at least they aren't part of a bizarre "updated" vision of middle Verdi. And fortunately, Verdi's dark opera asks only that the scenery not get in the way of the singing.
For some reason, traditional Italian performance practice has taken precedence over modern scholarship in this production, and so the top-notch critical edition of Rigoletto prepared by the U. of C. team headed by Philip Gossett wasn't used. (Did they think nobody would notice?) Was the Lyric too cheap to pop for new scores, or did the singers resist learning the changes?
The singing was the strong point of the show. No one did badly, and the three principals were first-rate. Leo Nucci's jester was well acted and richly sung, though perhaps this garnered even more sympathy for the malignant protagonist. A pleasant surprise was the delicately beautiful voice of Patrizia Pace as Rigoletto's daughter Gilda; she floated attractive pianissimo notes at appropriate times and actually looked as if she might be 16. Francisco Araiza sang with decadent aplomb as the duke, even when he had all he could handle in the ample charms of Robynne Redmon as Maddalena. Kevin Langan brought a deep, rich tone and a sinister, almost Mephistophelian manner to the assassin Sparafucile, and Count Monterone's curses were delivered firmly by Alan Held. The vocally and physically attractive Elizabeth Futral as the Countess Ceprano was an obvious mark for the lecherous duke.
Conductor John Fiore and the Lyric Orchestra turned in a respectable performance. However, everyone would probably appreciate it if those members of the orchestra not otherwise engaged would make their way out of the pit to peruse their newspapers. C'mon, guys--some of us take this stuff seriously.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Romano.