Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto has from its earliest performances been part of the basic opera repertory and has never lost this position. Its story of evil by men in power, represented by the Duke of Mantua and his henchmen, the shameful advantage this unprincipled Duke takes of a vulnerable young girl, and the universal abuse of the Duke’s jester, the hunchback Rigoletto — all are repugnant elements which we humans cringe to recognize in ourselves and from the corroding effects of which we are helpless to escape.
No matter how much audiences are at once repulsed and drawn to the events of this drama, we are irresistibly pulled into the net created by the formidable power and beauty of the orchestral and vocal music through which Verdi, at the top of his artistic powers, brings to life the reprehensible behavior of the Duke and his followers as well as the suffering of the poor hunchback and his beautiful daughter at the hands of the Duke in dramatic music of the highest order. The music of the prelude is riveting in its beauty and ability to tell the story of those who inflict suffering and those who must bear it, seemingly with no mercy expected.
Verdi’s librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, invented characters of such reality that Verdi must have had a very clear conception of their motivations, emotions, and relationships with each other from the outset of their work together. The character of the evil Duke is so vivid that it inspires some of Verdi’s most beautiful, chilling writing; the assassin Sparafucile encourages the composer to create him in the blackest colors and so make the audience shiver. The librettist’s tender depiction of the naïve Gilda is especially effective. Neither the audience nor the composer wants her beauty and naïveté to make her an easy mark for the Duke, yet it can be no other way. And what of the greatly-suffering Rigoletto, whose fate it is to be the butt of the cruel machinations of the Duke and his thugs? Piave allows the audience to realize that the suffering hunchback, of all the characters in the opera, deserves most of its pity because of his inability to change one factor in his life or in his daughter’s life.
The principal singers in a production of Rigoletto can succeed in their roles only if they have the vocal skills and musical intelligence to enable them to use every note of the music that Verdi provides for them to give vivid life to the characters they play and if they have the acting ability to make the audience identify with their conflicts and emotions. Moreover, they must possess the vocal beauty required of all bel canto singers if they are to meet the expectations of all who hear them. Certainly the Opera Company of North Carolina’s superb cast used all these traits to command the attention of everyone in the audience. One of the most outstanding singers in this cast, the beautiful soprano Sarah Jane McMahon as Gilda, the trusting young woman completely in love with the Duke of Mantua without any understanding of what he plans for her, revealed a voice of brilliance, power, range, bell-like high notes and great fluidity which enabled her to bring all of Verdi’s music to stunning life. Her vocal skills, especially in “Caro nome,” allowed her to convey the girl’s total belief in the Duke’s supposed love for her so that, while all of us who listened to her admired her imposing singing skills, we also recognized the amazing naïveté that would no doubt bring her to destruction by a man interested only in physical conquest.
The imposing tenor Leonardo Capalbo, as the cruel, immoral Duke of Mantua, is from beginning to end an example of the brilliance of the great tenor voice. His ringing high notes and power, which carried easily to the back of Memorial Auditorium, was not always pleasing to one of my seat-mates, who found his delivery too loud. I could not agree: this ringing voice is a perfect means of characterizing a man who is the epitome of cruelty and arrogance, always determined to get everything he wants, especially a young girl whose innocence is a challenge to him. Her belief in his love for her makes the audience gnash its teeth in rage, and his best-known aria, “La donna è mobile,” is viciously ironic as he describes the fickleness of women, which is far more likely true of men like him.
Perhaps the greatest role in the opera is the title role, played and sung so admirably by Gaétan Laperrière. His immense, resonant voice allows the character of Rigoletto to resound as the jester, who seems rather close to his employer and with him makes cruel sport of a courtier whose wife has become the Duke’s mistress. It is not long before Rigoletto must recognize that his innocent young daughter Gilda is also imprisoned in the Duke’s apartments. Most of his impassioned singing is an expression of hatred of the Duke, love for his shamed daughter, and a recognition that his scorn of Countess Ceprano has now brought the curse of the Count down upon his head. Perhaps Laperrière’s most powerful singing comes when he tries to act as if what has happened to Gilda is a rather everyday thing, but the sob in his voice is all too clearly heard. Finally, when his daughter’s body is returned to him in a sack in the final scene, Laperrière reveals the depth of the suffering in Rigoletto’s agony while his child dies before him in — literally — a sack of shame.
The other singers in this cast offered superb singing and acting, too, particularly contralto Audrey Babcock as Maddalena and Jeffrey Carlson as the bitter Count Ceprano. The large, well-trained chorus was excellent and particularly effective in their collective roles as the cruel followers of Mantua.
The exceptionally fine leadership of Timothy Myers, who certainly knows what all singers need from their conductor and his orchestra, the excellent work of stage director Trevore Ross, and all the other technicians deserve some loud, very sincere kudos. Anyone who was unable to be present at the opening night, in Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium, should get to the theatre on the afternoon of October 4 to see one of the best productions you will ever have a chance to enjoy. Don’t miss it!!!
Note: Rigoletto will be repeated on October 4; see our calendar for details.