Review: Minnesota Opera’s “Rigoletto”

Rigoletto Production Photo
Olafur Sigurdarson and Marie-Eve Munger (Photo by Cory Weaver)

Minnesota Opera’s “Rigoletto” is a timely, thought-provoking new production of a classic opera. First performed in 1851, its tale of men corrupted by absolute power preying on the less privileged is eerily relevant in 2018. Giuseppe Verdi’s timeless and gorgeous music is stunningly played by the orchestra under the baton of Michael Christie.

Director Austin Regan sets his production in a dystopian Mantua, given an appropriately Orwellian physical representation by Scenic Designer Julia Noulin-Merat’s stark and angular set, replete with a descending wall of surveillance cameras, as well as the constant presence of hovering windows through which every character’s action is watched and scrutinized. A misstep in the design is the black plastic-wrap covering most of the walls of the scenery. It’s perhaps a nod to the heroine’s ultimate fate, but overall it’s an odd choice for a bold statement. Paul Whitaker’s dim lighting design is also a hindrance. While lending a foreboding air to the proceedings, it is at times difficult to make out exactly what is happening on stage.

The Duke of Mantua (Joshua Dennis) rules over this totalitarian empire with a nonchalantly predatory behavior towards women; behavior encouraged and gloated upon by the men of his court. This includes Rigoletto the jester (Olafur Sigurdarson) who obliges and abets his master’s exploitative whims, having recently assisted the Duke in seducing and bringing about the societal downfall of the Count of Monterone (Kenneth Kellogg)’s daughter. Because of this, the Count appears at the Duke’s lavish palace and lays a father’s curse upon Rigoletto’s head.

This curse shakes Rigoletto to the core. He has sheltered his daughter Gilda (Marie-Eve Munger) all her life, allowing her only to leave their house to attend church. Little does he know that, in her innocence, she has fallen in love with the Duke whom she has seen at church. Munger is the standout performer of the evening, bringing a sweet and guileless presence to Gilda. She is charmingly exuberant as a young woman in love for the first time, and her rendition of the aria “Caro nome” is a true highlight.

In retaliation of Rigoletto’s constant prankstering the men of the Duke’s court abduct Gilda and bring her to the Duke’s bed. Upon discovery of the abduction Rigoletto makes his way to the palace and begs his daughter’s abductors for her life. Sigurdarson is capable of conveying Rigoletto’s tortured angst through his gorgeous baritone but Regan’s sometimes static staging limits Sigurdarson’s ability to fully encompass the character’s tragic pathos. With this scene in particular, what should be a desperate and heart wrenching moment comes off as stilted by the limited action on stage. Sigurdarson merely sings out into the audience instead of directly addressing and pleading with his daughter’s abductors.

The strongest moments in the production are those that take place between Sigurdarson and Munger as father and daughter. Their tender and playful introductory scene makes their reconciliation after Gilda’s abduction all the more heartbreaking and bittersweet. The heart of “Rigoletto” is the bond between these two characters and it is rightfully the centerpoint of this production.

Now that the Duke has satiated his lust for Gilda, his interest has diverted to new exploits. As the Duke, Dennis gets to perform the most well-known aria from the opera, “La donna e mobile”, and he does it with braggadocio and aplomb. It’s not difficult to imagine the lyrics (“locker room banter”) coming out of the mouth of a world leader or Hollywood mogul. This irony is not lost in this production and the tragedy that ultimately unfolds is made startlingly pertinent.

Despite Gilda’s protestations Rigoletto swears revenge upon the Duke. He hires the assassin Sparafucile (Matt Boehler with a rich, reverberating bass) to kill the Duke. Rigoletto also reveals the Duke’s infidelitous nature to Gilda by observing with her a tryst between the Duke and Sparafucile’s sister, Maddalena (Nadia Fayad), who starts out as her brother’s accomplice in crime but quickly falls under the rapacious spell of the Duke. Maddalena ultimately convinces Sparafucile to spare the Duke’s life and kill instead the first person to show up at their door. The quartet between Rigoletto, Gilda, the Duke and Maddalena is movingly staged through lighting and direction to overcome the physical area the characters inhabit and reflect pure emotion, their voices overlapping and intertwining in their separate yearnings, space and time fluidly merging and dividing throughout the piece of music.

In the end Gilda decides to make the ultimate sacrifice for the Duke and the love she still feels for him. She takes the Duke’s place at the end of Sparafucile’s knife and, in this production, Sparafucile deposits her in a trash bag that he intends to throw in the river. Rigoletto, his thirst for revenge not yet fully sated, insists on disposing of the body himself, only to discover, by hearing in the distance the strains of the Duke singing, that it is not the Duke inside the sack but his own daughter. Rigoletto embraces Gilda in her last moments of life, the Count’s curse having now fully descended upon him.

It’s appropriate that director Regan’s most profound staging choice takes place at this moment – with a chorus of men literally turning their backs on the tragedy they’ve helped instigate. As the stage lights go out and the house lights come up, we as an audience are left with the realization that the Duke’s Mantua, not so very different from our own world, is no longer a habitable place. As Yeats so eloquently put, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” It’s no longer acceptable to turn our backs and let injustice, persecution, and preventable deaths go unacknowledged. The time has come for change.

4 out of 5 stars

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