george manahan

‘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.

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Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd

Portland Opera’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s murderous masterpiece is bloody good musical theater for all

by DARYL BROWNE AND BRUCE BROWNE

With temperatures teetering toward 100 degrees at the 2 pm downbeat, Portland’s Keller Auditorium enjoyed nearly a full house last Sunday for Portland Opera’s production of Sweeney Todd. Perhaps they came in from the “city on fire” in shorts and spaghetti straps because they wanted to see great musical theater. Maybe this was their very first opera production. Or they came because it was Steven Sondheim’s grisly musical-turned-opera, a tale of moral decay across classes with magnetic appeal to a diversity of theater goers.

But aye, we ought not worry about the why. Just know that Portland Opera conjured the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim and those present were treated to a stunning afternoon of entertainment and artistry.

Susannah Mars as Mrs. Lovett and David Pittsinger as Sweeney Todd. Photo: Portland Opera.

Susannah Mars as Mrs. Lovett and David Pittsinger as Sweeney Todd. Photo: Cory Weaver.

Mr. Sweeney Todd is a despicable character for whom we are made sympathetic “in comparison” within the tone-setting first 30 minutes of the show. We meet a slightly despicable Mrs. Nellie Lovett, who recognizes that Todd is really former citizen Benjamin Barker, sent to jail in order to allow the more despicable Judge Turpin to brutally assault Barker’s naïve young wife. Judge Turpin is, in turn, served by the most despicable lackey, Beadle. All this takes place, relates Sondheim’s classic Greek chorus, in the pit of a city called London a century and a half or so ago.

The story, a Victorian penny dreadful turned into play and movie, was brought to musical book by the late Hugh Wheeler, who also wrote Candide and A Little Night Music. The tale twists through various evidences of mental derision and moral decay to an inevitable tragic ending. No redemption here; all will be engulfed in shadow save perhaps our two most pure of heart, Anthony and Joanna. It’s a bloody tale, this.

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Portland Opera preview: Strauss’s batty, bubbly Die Fledermaus

The company celebrates its first half-century with a Champagne party opera

By ANGELA ALLEN

A party piece? A masterpiece? A piece of 19th-century confection that resists staleness?

All of that, and more, even if The Bat (Die Fledermaus) and Johann Strauss II’s melodious waltz-weighted music are familiar to many, says Grammy Award-winning singer Daniel Belcher. Known for his big bright baritone and theatrical wit, he will sing the central role of Gabriel von Eisenstein in Portland Opera’s season opener 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Keller Auditorium. Other performances are 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13 and 15, and 2 p.m. Nov. 9.

Party time! Portland Opera's Die Fledermaus opens Friday. Photo: Karen Almond courtesy of Portland Opera.

Party time! Portland Opera’s Die Fledermaus opens Friday. Photo: Karen Almond courtesy of Portland Opera.

In addition to ending with a Champagne toast (in jail, no less), the production celebrates the 50th anniversary of Portland Opera, which sang its way into the Portland arts scene in 1964 at Madison High School with Die Fledermaus. The title translates as The Bat, or sometimes as The Revenge of the Bat for an incident the naughty Eisenstein orchestrated that prompted Prince Orlofsky’s extravagant ball, where much of the action takes place. But forget figuring out the title; it’s a sideline to the fun piece about mistaken identity and borderline bad behavior.

In late 19th-century Vienna, Die Fledermaus WAS the operetta of its day. Spoken language alternated with lilting tunes, certainly hallmarks of musicals and light operas. Strauss II’s 1874 piece brought theatergoers back to their seats after a long recession in Austria. Audiences responded to catchy up-tempo music, the comic fury of mixed identity, a whirlwind of elegant ball gowns, and an everything’s-OK reconciliation between the somewhat wayward Eisenstein and his real-yet-disguised wife, Rosalinde, a role played this time by soprano Mary Dunleavy, who sang Donna Elvira in PO’s 2012 Don Giovanni.

“They’re not the nicest people,” Belcher says about the operetta’s superficial characters. “They treat each other rather poorly,” but as in most romantic comedies, the ending ties up pleasantly with no one getting badly hurt.

With a warhorse, even a lightweight one, audiences demand fresh takes, and this Fledermaus is making promises to dish them up. “Every number, aria, etc., has a change of tempo and transitions,” says music director George Manahan. “In some music, there are traditional ways that notes are held and Die Fledermaus has twice as many of those traditions with its Viennese style and the operetta approach. So it has a lot of baggage. To make it fresh you have to wash a lot of that away and get back to what is on the page. If you did every Viennese lilt and ritard [tempo slowdown], it would be stretched out.”

To keep things moving, director Chas Rader-Shieber, who directed PO’s Rinaldo in 2013, has tightened up the dialogue. The freshness factor increases with choreographer Matthew Ferraro’s creative movement designed to heighten the humor, and a handsome cast that also includes lovely lyric soprano Susannah Biller as the maid and mezzo Jennifer Rivera as sexually ambiguous Prince Orlofsky. Belcher is a Rossini regular, and performed a hilarious Figaro at PO in 2010, so expect him to pump up the giddiness. “I have a bit of a brash personality,” he says. “I’m energetic and outgoing. My vocalization reflects who I am, sort of like owning my own skin. There’s a natural brightness to my sound. My repertoire (Mozart, Rossini, Strauss) has always matched my voice.”

That voice helped him earn a Grammy in 2011 for Best Opera Recording for his part on contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin. Though Belcher made international waves in 2004 with his interpretation of Prior Walter in Angels in America, and recently performed the role of Robert Kennedy in Waiting for Miss Monroe at the Netherlands Opera, he credits his vocal growth to the training he received from apprentice opera programs, especially Houston Grand Opera, where he studied in the mid-1990s.

A number of this production’s singers are PO’s Young Resident Artists, who take on secondary roles, and sometimes larger parts in smaller operas. Belcher, who’s previously worked with Alexander Elliott (Dr. Falke) and Ian Jose Ramirez (Dr. Blind), is an ardent believer in young artist programs. PO’s Resident Artist program began 10 years ago and continues to add up-and-coming voices to almost every opera. “In five years, they are going to be the next stars,” said Belcher, who teaches voice at Florida State University. “It’s my turn to pay back.”

This production of Strauss’s three-act operetta runs two hours and 45 minutes and shares some costumes with the Washington National Opera and scenery with Seattle Opera. Dialogue and singing are in English, so no excuses, other than a glass of Champagne, for missing the point.

Tickets for Die Fledermaus are available online and by phone at Portland Opera.

Angela Allen writes about the arts in Portland. She is a photographer and a poet, and teaches creative writing in the Portland schools.

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