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If you could close your eyes, tone down the orchestra a few notches and simply listen to the singing, you might think the Lowell House production of Verdi's Rigoletto a remarkably fine one. As it is, watching what happens on stage doesn't add much to what you hear. There simply isn't that much to see, and what one does see tends to lessen, not strengthen, any dramatic impact.
Which is not to say that the story behind Rigoletto constitutes great dramatic material. Court jester to the Duke of Mantua, the hunch-backed Rigoletto makes the mistake of ridiculing Monterone, a distraught father who accuses the notorious, skirt-chasing duke of dishonoring his daughter. Monterone responds by cursing Rigoletto, praying that he may know first-hand a father's misery. Of course, the curse comes true, for the duke has already espied Rigoletto's beautiful daughter Gilda from afar. Not knowing who she is, he proceeds to make her his next conquest.
Meanwhile, the duke's courtiers conspire to abduct Gilda and carry her off to the palace. When Rigoletto finally finds his daughter again, seduced and deflowered, he swears revenge and hires a paid assassin, Sparafucile, to murder the duke at a wayside inn. As for the denouement, suffice it to say that Gilda, despite ample evidence of her lover's inconstancy, dies to save his life...but not before singing a last extended duet with her broken-hearted father.
This is pretty absurd stuff, but the great power of Verdi's music lies in rendering emotionally gripping even the most contrived and melodramatic of plots. Some of that ability emerges in this production, but not enough.
It's not the singers' fault--at least not musically. In the usual Lowell House tradition, most of the soloists are recruited from the New England Conservatory, classical music and choral groups around town, and the Boston Conservatory. Saturday night's cast was superb, particularly tenor Richard Munroe (the duke of Mantua, to be played by Thomas Oesterling next week) and soprano Kaja Kjestine Schuppert (Gilda).
Munroe started off well with the first of two delightful arias about the fickleness of women and hit peak form in the famous love-aria at the beginning of Act Three, combining expressive phrasing and a smooth, full richness of tone that impressed even this Pavarotti fan. But he faded a bit in the other favorite, "La donna e mobile" (in this translation, "Woman's fidelity") and went slightly hoarse in the lilting, flirtatious duet with Madalena. Nevertheless, he brought a professional polish and pleasing musicality to the role immortalized by Luciano.
Schuppert's voice initially seemed to have a shade too much vibrato and a touch of shrillness in the upper notes. Fortunately, as the show went on, she exhibited an excellent technique and impressive range which were put to especially effective use in Gilda's virtuosic solo at the end of Act Two.
Victor Jannett's Rigoletto was less satisfying and, as the central character of the opera, embodied the troubles of the production. His baritone was adequate, if not especially exciting, but it somehow lacked sheer force at crucial moments. Part of the problem lay in that his voice was drowned out every time the orchestra launched into the "curse" motif. And although he made a valiant effort to look appropriately anguished, his arm-waving and facial expression never quite succeeded in evoking the passions of the embittered hunchback.
His problems were mirrored in the male chorus, who had no better luck overcoming the blast of the orchestra and always looked somewhat out of order when coming onstage. There's a heartrending scene in Act Three, for example, in which the duke's toadies block Rigoletto's entrance to their lord's chambers, kicking the poor hunchback until his angry recriminations collapse into a pitiful plea for the return of his daughter. It's a moment that can move one to tears; yet here it looked so stagey that it failed to resonate.
There were other problems, too, not the least of which was that opera lyrics--while lovely to listen to in flowing, euphonious Italian--invariably sound inane and affected when translated into English. This performance was no exception. The stage design was disappointingly stark and unimaginative, with hardly any props of any kind--unless you count the costumes.
Someone came up with the less-than-brilliant idea of slapping a '50s-retro veneer on all the singers' clothes and gestures. Rigoletto in hat and coat recalls Willy Loman with a hump; Gilda sports a flaring gray poodle-skirt, a bright red cardigan sweater and ponytail tied with a matching red ribbon. The duke, when he comes a-courting, looks sublimely ridiculous in a red monogrammed vest. Even the courtship scene between the duke and Gilda is straight out of the '50s, reminiscent of that porch swing on a summer night--a worthy tradition in its way, but ill-suited to the Late Romantic love that's actually supposed to be going on here.
Similarly, the well-known strains of "La donna e mobile" make a bizarre accompaniment to the spectacle of a nameless seductress striking the poses of a modern-day strip dancer. Crowning it all is the assassin, Sparafucile, clad in black leather oddly topped by a workman's cap: He signals all his stage exits by ceremoniously donning a pair of black shades.
Frivolities like these further fragment the effect of the whole. In general, there's no real sense of tension or heartbreak in this production. It's there in bits and pieces, but these just doesn't fuse into the one continuously rising dramatic arc of emotion that the music so darkly promises. In the end, you feel you've just seen a series of well-sung pieces--not the complete work of art we think of as great opera.
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