‘Rigoletto’ review: toxic masculinity in high office

Portland Opera’s production of Verdi’s classic captures the composer’s critique of misogynistic leaders

By BRUCE BROWNE

Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto may be a popular classic today. But a beleaguered, thin-skinned political leader tried to strangle it at birth for daring to depict a ruler who would abuse the women around him. And who would do that in this day and age?

POA chose to open its 2018 season with one of the great works to be plucked from Verdi’s middle period (late 1840s to mid-1850s), which also included La Traviata and Il Trovatore. The 30-something-year-old composer was successful enough (and financially comfortable) at this time to select his own subject matter — and to break with musical convention.

Portland Opera’s ‘Rigoletto.’ Photo: Cory Weaver.

Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave chose Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse, a play that had been banned in France after opening night in 1832. French censors claimed the play’s misogynistic royal was a reference to the then-current King Louis-Philippe. (Hugo was to have his say about the reign of Louis-Philippe three decades later in Les Miserables).

The Verdi/Piave blueblood, the Duke of Mantua, is the poster boy for misogyny, displaying his attitude with great elan in the beginning of the show with the aria ‘Quest o Quella” (this [woman] or that one), and he’s already seduced a vast number of the female courtiers including wives and daughters of his own henchmen.

The “revolting morality and obscene triviality of the libretto” (Life of Verdi, John Roselli, Cambridge University Press, 2000) was only one of the elements that, according to the letter from the Imperial and Royal Central Director to the composer, precluded Verdi from opening the show. In fact, it’s more likely that Italy’s real King, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon III) felt, in these tumultuous times, more than a hint of criticism coming his way, and wanted none of it.

Later in his career, Verdi became involved in a similar attack, based on his portrayal of the King in Ballo in Maschera, originally about the assassination of Swedish King Gustave III. But because that plot ended in a royal assassination, Verdi was forced to move the setting from Italy to Boston in colonial America where Riccardo now has a palace. Artistic cum revolutionary undercurrents thwarted once again by the censors.

As to Rigoletto, cut to a few months later, and Verdi and Piave made most of the necessary alterations to allow the show to go on. The abduction and implied rape were tempered in setting and tone. And there is no comeuppance for the despicable Duke. Instead, it is the title character, Rigoletto (and his daughter Gilda) who suffer the “maledizione” (damnation).

The hunchbacked Court Jester Rigoletto has taken his ridicule too far. He’s pricked the senses of the male courtiers for “allowing” their wives and daughters to be seduced by the Duke, and tormented Count Monterone, whose daughter has been savaged in the Duke’s court. “You’ll be damned,” sings the Count to Rigoletto, thus beginning the pull of the thread in the story – the curse that unravels Rigoletto’s life.

Stephen Powell in the title role of Portland Opera’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The male dominance in this opera is not a plot theme — it’s a fundament. Women are always in the service of men; even the protectiveness and righteous indignation over the debasing of women is driven by machismo, which paves the way for plenty of bravura in the male characters and the chorus. And in a gutsy move, POA gave us this pure, unadulterated Rigoletto.

The stage at Keller Auditorium was filled to the fly space with imposing, grey rock walls depicting the interior and exterior city landscape in Mantua. The gaiety of the opening scene in which the dominant male characters are “amusing themselves” degrades rapidly, revealing the truth about the court‘s misogynistic culture. Ever darkening shades of pessimism continue throughout the opera, matching the profound despair exhibited by the title character after being cursed.

Flush with some of Verdi’s most memorable arias and duets, the opera was well paced: never a flagging moment in the action, although the longish first set change in Act I broke the momentum too early in the drama. Many flashes of vocal brilliance heightened the anticipation.

As Rigoletto, Stephen Powell showed a richly upholstered voice throughout his range. In “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” (Courtiers, vile damned race), Rigoletto’s physical presence seemed to collapse as he descended into despair, but his voice grew stronger. Powell and tenor Barry Banks just got better as the opera progressed. Banks, as the Duke (a/k/a Gualtier Malde) is all tempered steel, voice cutting through in all good ways.

Monterone (Reginald Smith Jr.) displayed one of the jaw-dropping-est voices (almost wasted because he’s only on stage in a brief, one dimensional role) – a huge instrument, but never out of control. On the other hand, we could have used more low end from Scott Conner as Sparafucile. Verdi purposely scores some very low notes in portraying the villainous strain of this dark presence, in character and voice. These notes were sometimes hard to hear – in part because of the hall and perhaps the staging within the tavern set in Act III. Both Conner and Maddelena could at times have been displayed to better vocal advantage by singing from farther downstage.

Feisty Females

So, absent Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda (Katrina Galka), Sparafucile’s sister (Hannah Penn) and Gilda’s maid Giovanna (Kate Ferrar), we have a plot built around a world run by guys written by guys. But these women brought vitality to their roles.

When Ms. Galka sang in the very high flute voice, she was superb, though when she created crescendos through the dynamic spectrum (say from piano to mezzo forte) she seemed to change color and quality, becoming a bit edgy at times. It’s a lovely bright, flexible voice, needed for a role such as this and arias such as “Caro nome” (Dear name). I just wish that we could have heard more vocal control in some of the held notes.

Barry Banks as the Duke and Katrina Galka as Gilda in Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto.’ Photo: Cory Weaver.

The fourth member of the famous “Quartet from Rigoletto” (with the Duke, Rigoletto, and Gilda), Hannah Penn as Maddelena, was a good fit for both that piece and the remainder of her provocative role as seducer, which only appears in the last Act (III). “Local talent” is sometimes used crypto-pejoratively by some writers, but come on, Portland has tons of it, and it’s wonderful to hear artists such Ms. Penn, Laura Beckel Thoreson (upcoming in La Cenerentola) and Angela Niederloh (upcoming in Faust), three of the best mezzos in the northwest, on the POA stage.

The other “star” in the male orbit was the POA Men’s Chorus, robust, spot on, rhythmically acute, with a shining presence throughout the vast acoustical reaches of the Keller. Most exciting male chorus I’ve heard in some time. Alas, no female presence in this opera chorus – another hallmark of its time?

Perhaps more important than the obvious grand gestures were the details. Rigoletto’s subtle gestures…the use of a sack cloth to drag a woman in the opening scene foretells Gilda’s ghastly shroud in the final…turning off the supertext above the singing of “Caro nome” so every eye (and ear) could focus on Ms. Galka…and the red spotlight on the opera’s opening – jester red, or foreboding blood red. Yes, both.

Hannah Penn as Maddalenna and Barry Banks as the Duke in Portland Opera’s production of Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto.’ Photo: Cory Weaver.

The orchestra provided its share of magic as well: flexible, cantabile, they supported the singers throughout. Conductor George Manahan was thoroughly at home with the score, his tempo well judged, sometimes pushing the envelope in a good way, as in the duet at the end of Act II, “Addio, Addio” (Goodbye, Goodbye), where it was as quick as any I’ve heard.

Occasionally I’d like to have heard a bit more of the strings (and when have we ever asked more from an opera orchestra?). With that exception, the orchestra was perfection. Once again we are reminded of the value of projected supertext. Perhaps for any foreign language concert or stage production, this is essential. Translation in real time makes the work so much more accessible.

So: a borrowed story, a political statement, an opera with vocal fireworks, visual stunners, dramatic tension, orchestral ingenuity and a tale told through centuries. This is just the kind of showing that POA, and in general, the musical community of Portland, needs to keep classical music flourishing in this city. I sure hope Portland Opera’s General Manager Christopher Mattaliano continues with stage direction in the near future.

And POA’s future is indeed going to hell this summer. Upcoming is Faust (Gounod) beginning June 8 and Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, opening July 27. Different operas to be sure, but both delving into damnation and the underworld. Politely sandwiched between the two (opening July 13) is Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella), which will take a little of the heat off of what promises to be a great Portland Opera season.

Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. 

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