Review: Rigoletto by Austin Opera
by Brian Paul Scipione
Austin Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto has a brief three performance run ,which is unfortunate considering how stellar this show is. Presented as a three-act opera (the original had four) is based on Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s'amuse (The King Amuses Himself), and despite the deceptively light-hearted title the story is a brutal one indeed. The work originally debuted in Venice in 1851 and despite some initial issues with government censors, it went on to be considered one of Verdi’s masterpieces. Verdi had to change the ruling character from a king to a duke so as to be allowed to continue the production. Officials of the Austrian government ruling Northern Italy at the time were worried that the original story would incite political unrest.
The story centers around the titular hunch-backed fool and the Duke of Mantua whose morals can be considered casual at best.
Following classic rules for tragedy, Rigoletto focuses on a personal flaw as the cause of the character’s downfall. The outcome affects both innocent and guilty with equal ferocity. Many critics railed at the play, feeling the degree of bitterness was so intensely out of proportion that Verdi and librettist Piave were in fact celebrating repulsiveness of life rather than condemning it.
Those reviews were bolstered by the fact that the opera’s music was catchy, light-hearted, and pleasant. La donna è mobile, one of opera’s most famous arias, comes from this play. Despite contemporary criticism of the light-hearted portrayal of tragedy, the opera became renown among future composers and performers, similar in manner to a cult classic film today. Igor Stravinsky, in particular, defended the play,claiming that La donna è mobile has “more substance and feeling than the whole of Wagner's Ring cycle.”
This production stars Michael Chioldi as Rigoletto, Kang Wang as the Duke, and Madison Leonard as Gilda, in her Austin Opera debut. All three stars execute their performances with admirable strength and grace.
As noted by earlier critics, the Duke interestingly has the most playful melodies, while the fool’s songs are full of a deep tragedy. The role of Gilda on the other hand is blessed with the greatest versatility; she sings about love, duty, honor, confusion, and sacrifice in a variety of styles. Ms Leonard does a wonderful job of embracing this range. She sings while standing, sitting, moving, and at one point while lying down on the middle of the stage. She is a sheer spectacle to watch as her voice seems to enter your ears and flesh at the same time, reverberating like a beautiful wild animal that has just escaped captivity. The production’s intensity is bound to her character’s every emboldened maneuver, as hers is in effect the only character that it is possible to find sympathetic.
The play’s set via the New Orleans Opera is overtly dramatic and reminds one of a late eighties MTV music video by Meatloaf. The costumes on loan from the Utah Opera are perfectly fitting with the piece. Overall, this production draws an explicit distinction between the piece’s embodiment of both high and low art. The supertitles above the proscenium arch are of course helpful, but I have my misgivings about their accuracy. They seemed rather diminished in content to be read as easily as a daily newspaper, all headline and very little poetry.
But as Shakespearewrote, “music is the food of love” and it's the very meat and potatoes of this production. The work of the symphony, the chorus and the principals is so emotive one could close one's eyes and still be haunted by this production.
November 09 - November 17, 2019
701 West Riverside Drive
Austin, TX, 78704
Saturday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
More available at the Austin Opera website