There are so many ways to be an outsider that all of us have
felt it at one time or another. In opera, Rigoletto, the
unlikable titular hero of Verdi's greatest early masterpiece,
stands at the summit of tragic apartness from his milieu.
He's an extreme case of his social participation being
wholly a matter of grudging tolerance. His status is fragile.
As the court jester required to amuse an imperious aristocrat,
there isn't a trace of professional pride in him.
He encourages the Duke’s dissolute habits, makes fun of his boss's victims, and hates himself for it. He projects that self-hatred onto the Duke and his court, feeling free of their scorn only when he's away from the toxic limelight and with his only family, the nubile daughter he keeps in seclusion.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' current production takes a chance on blurring this apartness by updating the setting to 19th-century France, during the time of Victor Hugo, whose play "Le roi s'amuse" generated the composer's great enthusiasm for an operatic treatment. I know that social stratification persisted in France after the Revolution, but it requires an imaginative leap to interpret it on the rigid and controlling level it had been a couple of centuries earlier, the setting of Hugo's story.
Fortunately, cues for seeing Rigoletto as a distinct underling pervade both the libretto and the music. It's just that the social criticism seems less acute when the action is moved into the setting of, say, "La Traviata." Costuming puts this production’s courtiers mostly in top hats and formal wear, so that reminders that they by no means represent the emerging bourgeoisie, but are of high status, are always before us. Rigoletto himself is plainly dressed (no cap and bells), making it clear he is from another emerging world — the professional entertainer, struggling to maintain an outwardly respectable foothold on the same level as the artistic rabble we know from another popular opera, Puccini's "La Boheme."
As such, this Rigoletto, Roland Wood, is constantly carrying about a large dummy whenever he is onstage at court. He ventriloquizes his japes through this puppet, which visually embodies most of the jester's grotesque pain. During the opera's brief prelude, Rigoletto mutely joins the puppet onstage during the opera’s brief prelude, which ends here with Wood's silent mimicry of an anguished scream as the curse motif is inroduced.
This is director Bruno Ravella's striking way of communicating his approach to the opera's central theme: the jester visibly agonized during the orchestra's first announcement of the curse that will eventually bring him down. His intended target, the rakish Duke, lives on at the end, in a denouement so striking that it's no violation of spoiler etiquette to mention it here. The courtiers presumably survive and thrive as well, having functioned so spectacularly as a chorus earlier that the audience is left in no doubt as to their power.
In the June 14 performance, Wood displayed such stature, both vocally and physically, so that Rigoletto's fate readily evoked sympathy. The character lacks the perspective that might have allowed him to avoid the tragedy, and Wood's performance made the jester's narrow vision believable. In his negotiations with the thug Sparafucile, in his pathetic duets with Gilda, in his hostility toward the courtiers, this Rigoletto was fully a flawed hero. I almost got used to the fact that Wood was not saddled with Rigoletto's conventional hunchback, but stood erect except when felled by his comeuppance. The only visible trait of the "monster" the courtiers keep mentioning is a large birthmark — the kind sometimes called a port-wine stain — down the right side of his face.
His relationship with Joshua Wheeker's well-sung Duke was not fully realized, however. At court, both men run in their private channels pretty exclusively, establishing who they are and where their interests lie. That the Duke values Rigoletto in his own selfish way wasn't particularly clear. We certainly got, however, an indication of his predatory sense of entitlement — thanks to the buoyant paean to promiscuity known as "Questo a quella" in the original (this production is sung in James Fenton's supple English translation).
So Young Park made for a winsome Gilda, a hard role to portray according to any 21st-century common denominator of womanhood: As Beverly Sills, a soprano who knew whereof she spoke first-hand, once said: "Gilda is such a sap." Her persistent loyalty to the Duke, whom she has first taken to be a poor, handsome student, is hard to credit, but that doesn't keep her fate from being heart-wrenching.
But Park's heavy vibrato, at first coming across as a slight liability, helped convey a character hopelessly naive, unsure of herself, and plainly already a kind of victim because her father has kept her isolated and ignorant for years. There was undeniable luster and steadiness to Park's portrayal as it took shape June 14. Her performance of the aria known as "Caro nome" went from strength to strength; the more demanding the solo became, the more she rose to the occasion.
The pacing of the final scenes was tense and assured. Conductor Roberto Kalb, with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in the pit, deserves huge credit for the musical and dramatic success of what was originally the fourth act (Act 3 in this production, following a brief pause, so that there's a need for just one intermission).
Technically, hints of the gathering thunderstorm were vividly rendered. Christian Zaremba as the hired assassin never failed to heighten the atmosphere of menace. The famous quartet, a showpiece alluded to early in such unexpected places as "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," came off as the highlight it's supposed to be. Zaremba's capable partners in this number were Park, Wheeker, and Lindsay Ammann as Sparafucile's sister and murderous accomplice, Maddalena. Ammann's alto line was an anchor of solidity in this ensemble.
As for the embodiment of the curse that was part of the opera's early controversy – there were religious objections to displaying the force of superstition – it came through authoritatively in the brief appearances of Nicholas Newton as Count Monterone, a standout among the excellent array of male voices in this production.
Though its action was moved further to the brink of implausibility by aforementioned production choices, this is a "Rigoletto" to marvel at, chiefly for the sensationally well-realized vocal and dramatic bond between father and daughter.