Fine cast is led by Alisa Jordheim’s radiant Gilda
By Peter Alexander July 12 at 10:45 p.m.
Central City Opera’s second production of the 2021 festival season, Verdi’s Rigoletto, opened Saturday night (July 10) on a beautiful summer evening at Littleton’s Hudson Gardens.
The season had opened the previous Saturday (July 3) with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. The locale, chosen when CCO had to move from the close quarters of their opera house in Central City, proved idyllic for the Rigoletto opening. The opera—condensed to a single 100-minute span with no intermission—successfully used the outdoor location in the conception of the production, and mostly successfully moved the time to a near-present that featured a golf-playing Duke, a curse- and bible-brandishing preacher, and news passed by cell phone.
In updated productions, the Duke of Mantua has been transformed into a Mafia boss in New York’s Little Italy, a Sinatra-like singer in Vegas, and a skirt-chasing politico modeled on Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. This is a tempting way to convey the dissolution of the Duke’s court to modern audiences, but it offers a problem, too: Rigoletto himself.
In the original setting, Rigoletto’s status as court jester—forced to amuse the Duke and hated by everyone for his cutting tongue—is visibly apparent from his first entrance. There are no modern equivalents that quite capture that level of degradation and humiliation. In the case of the CCO production, effectively stage directed by Jose Maria Condemi, the other updatings worked well, but Rigoletto’s status remained problematic.
One example: In the second act, Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda flees from the Duke’s bedroom following her ravishment, to find her father among the courtiers. The impact of this scene lies partly in her immediate recognition of the depravity of his status in the court. But here, there is no dress or other sign of his debased status, which diminishes the impact of their reunion.
In just about every other way I found the updating effective. The Duke as a callow and callous ex-frat-boy surrounded by a posse, Monterone as a Bible-thumping televangelist, the tart Maddalena dressed in a scarlet (get it?) corset—these all worked. The informal dress, adapted for outdoor performances on warm summer nights, was effective. Gilda’s swing was a nice touch, suiting the outdoor venue well. This Rigoletto definitely packs a punch.
Sound was the greatest sacrifice to the outdoor venue. A reduced orchestra—eight strings, 22 players in all—is seated beneath a tent behind the stage. Each of the players and singers is individually mic’d, making the sound technician—seated in a stage-side tent of his own—the most important person you don’t see. Conductor John Baril communicates with the singers via video monitors.
But eight strings is not enough to create the weight you want in Verdi’s score, and the amplification only makes the orchestra sound tinny, not hefty. The woodwinds were often under-powered. The singers came across better, always present and easily understood.
One way the opera was condensed was by reducing the cast. The bevy of courtiers around the Duke was reduced to three named roles and some of the larger scenes and choral numbers were cut. The drama does not suffer from such reductions, but the musical breadth of the score does.
Of the cast members, Alisa Jordheim as Gilda was the star of the night. Her glittering, burnished soprano and splendid vocal technique made her every scene a delight. The tender wonder and brilliant coloratura of “Caro nome,” her anguished cries in the great Act III quartet, and above all her powerful resolve before sacrificing herself for the Duke—all were both musically and dramatically compelling.
Galeano Salas brought a lovely lyric tenor sound to the role of the Duke of Mantua and was at his best on the solo arias. His phrasing became more fluid as the evening wore on, but occasionally his phrasing was more pedestrian, lacking depth of expression.
In the title role, Aleksey Bogdanov sang with a resonant baritone. He was never less than effective, although his portrayal sometimes seemed directed rather than spontaneous. His best moments were his powerful rage in Act II and his final scene as Gilda dies in his arms, prompting his fierce cry of “Ah! La maledizione!” (Ah! The curse!).
John Paul Huckle was a menacing and deep-voiced Sparafucile who brought his small but essential role convincingly to life. Michelle Monroe was exactly as coarse and suggestive as she needed to be as Maddalena without losing vocal effectiveness. Together they made the final act a potent highlight.
As Monterone, Phillip Lopez gave a hard edge to his voice that matched his character’s harsh pronouncements. All the other roles were filled by a small but resilient cast of capable performers who sang well and made even their entrances across the visible spaces around and behind the stage part of the drama.
Sound issues with the amplified orchestra aside, John Baril conducted with style. He knit the through-composed score together with great effectiveness, building powerful momentum where necessary. The final act storm was driven but underpowered. Condemi’s clear direction of the smallish cast helped propel the story ahead.
Kudos to Central City Opera for finding a venue and a way to produce the season. Opera at Hudson Gardens is a unique experience for Colorado audiences, and one well worth taking in. It was a daunting challenge to move the production to a space that was new to the CCO, even as opera was new for the people at Hudson Gardens. If you don’t believe that it was a challenge for all, go to a performance and look at all the lights hung over the stage, then realize that the space is alternating two different shows.
Rigoletto continues in repertory at Hudson Gardens through July 30. Tickets are available here.
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Music by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
7 p.m. Friday, July 16; Tuesday, July 20; Thursday, July 22; Saturday, July 24; Wednesday, July 28; Friday, July 30
3 p.m. Wednesday, July 14; Sunday, July 18; Tuesday, July 27
Hudson Gardens, Littleton, Colo.