In the Italian province of Mantua, a duke has but one concern: wining, dining and then reclining the ladies of his realm. Life is nothing but pleasure for this playboy of the Western world, until he's smitten with a young girl he sees at his church. Following the Duke of Mantua's quest to have the girl, and the duke's cursed court jester Rigoletto, this dark tale is decidedly more Pennywise than Danny Kaye. Composed by Giuseppe Verdi, the show had to be revised several times to get past the censors of the time.
South African baritone Fikile Mvinjelwa stars as Rigoletto, the doomed jester in this sad saga. Mvinjelwa has good projection, especially in his middle range, but he sometimes lacks clarity in his pitches. His performance as a man watching his world crumble around him is quite moving.
Aurelio Dominguez does well acting as the playboy Duke of Mantua, but his voice isn't as strong as his portrayal. Dominguez's classic tenor operatic voice has a command of the high notes and wonderful vowels, but he has a tendency to sing through his nose and seems challenged when singing over the orchestra. His runs are a little out of tune and lack clarity, but he does a good job with the well-known canzone, “La donna A" mobile.”
Sang-Eun Lee is superb as Rigoletto's daughter Gilda. With a smooth and controlled soprano voice, Lee's comfort singing in a high range sold her performance. Lee doesn't have to belt it to hit challenging high notes, she can sing them pianissimo and slowly crescendo into a fortissimo. Her projection is wonderful, her trills effortless and her emotional portrayal moving. Her aria, “Caro Nome,” brings the house to rousing applause.
The backing chorus does a great job singing as one voice, and its staccato notes are marvelous. In the storm scene, its offstage vocal representation of blowing gale is so creepy it outdoes any other effect in the show to give the audience chills. The Virginia Symphony Orchestra is flawless, playing with great articulation and in time.
Using a basic, three-level platform stage left, and a rotating tower structure stage right, Peter Harrison and Marc Astafan's set design is decidedly sparse, but works just fine. It's worth noting that this set must work not only for the show, but also be transportable and function in three different theaters.
Chris Kittrell's lighting design is marred with problems. Bad shadows plague the show, and when the action occurs at one level of the set, the other characters are so darkly lighted it's difficult to see their reactions. While it's good to give the main action dominant lighting, the support acting is pointless if it can't be seen.
From Countess Ceprano's farthingaled emerald down to Gilda's innocent baby blue dress, Martin Pakledinaz's costumes fit both the time period and the characters. But for all of the care taken to recreate the costumes and set in period, the illusion is destroyed when a metal hardware store ladder is deployed to kidnap Gilda from her hideout.
A few technical problems aside, the show is superb. Between the suspenseful story, a compelling cast and Verdi's excellent compositions, “Rigoletto” is an excellent example that those of us who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.
Virginia Opera's “Rigoletto” plays Oct. 22 and 24 at CenterStage. For information call 866-673-7282 or visit www.vaopera.org. This review is based on the opening-night performance in Norfolk earlier this month.