Rigoletto May Not Be for Everyone

What entertains opera audiences today is the same as it was in 19th century Italy or 18th century Austria. The orchestration and vocalizations in, say, Lucia di Lammermoor or Don Giovanni are as thrilling now as the evenings of their first performances.

What differs is in the plotting. Born out of the cultural mores and sensibilities of their times, the plot lines of these operas contain dramatic conventions and holes in motivation that are unacceptable and/or offensive to modern audiences. A current of this occurs in the Minnesota Opera’s new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s classic, Rigoletto (March 17, 22, 24-25, 27, 29, 31, 2018).

This disjunction in values is nowhere more pronounced than in the Duke of Mantua’s beautiful aria in the third act, the famous “La donna é mobile.” As sung by the opera’s philandering authority figure, the song is more a projection of male vanity than a pronouncement on female fickleness. And while the duets between Rigoletto and his daughter, Gilda, are tender and heart-felt, his characterization of her as an innocent angel under his (unwanted) fatherly protection confines her to a room only he can enter. Rigoletto’s attitude toward authority figures might be somewhat justified by the ruffian behavior of the duke and his courtiers, but it doesn’t soften the impact of his bitter and calculating hiring of a professional assassin to avenge his honor.

What salvages all of this boorishness, bullying, and backstabbing is the beauty of Verdi’s music. This is where the Opera’s creative team shines. Conductor Michael Christie’s orchestra, leads Olafur Sigurdarson (Rigoletto), Marie-Eve Munger (the ill-fated Gilda), and Joshua Dennis (Duke of Mantua) soar with the music to make the passions that motivate it palpable and believable. The other cast members, particularly those serving in the duke’s retinue and chorus, provide superior sonic and emotional support, as always. The lighting and costume design, especially the colorful masks in Act II, serve its dark actions well, as do the economical if sometimes confounding (doorbell on a courtier’s back?) scenic design.

Some of this disjunction may be attributed to Verdi’s source material. Musical historians claim Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse suffered the same bureaucratic censure that afflicted Verdi’s opus. But regardless of its source or the cultural circumstances surrounding it, Rigoletto’s controversial attitudes towards contractual murder and treatment of women in an age of anti-gun and Me Too movements cannot be denied. As with any work of art, however, final judgment must rest in the eyes and ears of the individual. Attend a performance and decide yourself if beauties of music and style outweigh the affronts imposed by convention and stereotype.

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