The only thing worst than a theater critic is a theater blogger. Good criticism is well thought out, reasoned and considered. I have mere moments to jot my thoughts about a production which dozens of people have toiled weeks and even months on.
Given that caveat, I can only really give my first impressions of Portland Opera's production of Rigoletto. Performance wise Mark Rucker is putting forward a very strong performance as Rigoletto pretty much eclipsing Richard Troxell, but both men are clearly upstaged by the sheer vocal beauty and presence of Sarah Coburn as Gilda, Rigoletto's daughter. Coburn elevates ever scene she is in. For me the high point so far has been the duet between Gilda and Rigoletto.
I've had a few issues so far with the Portland Opera's production of Rigoletto. The stage is murky and dimly lit. I understand what they are going for, but it doesn't work. The dim stage seems to mute some of the performers on stage and in the second part of the first act after the opening number the chorus never quite is able to break out of the shadows.
The stage is also an issue. There was a huge pause between the first and second scene. Long at the point of being too long. After touring the huge stage I can understand the issues they have with it. Hopefully the transition will go smoother the next performance.
But the Opera itself is enjoyable. I kept thinking about how Rigoletto gets cursed at work in the course of doing his job, how the issues of his work follow his home and impact his home life. Somehow this feels oddly timely. Should Rigoletto be punished for doing his job as a court jester? He's hates the fact that he has to ridicule for a living and yet at the behest of the Duke he is forced to do it. Punished for a job he doesn't want to do…But as a fool Rigoletto seems to be pretty sharp. Compare him to the fool in Hamlet and realize that Rigoletto is in fact a reluctant fool.
Perhaps Rigoletto is more the fool for thinking he can imprison his daughter and keep her from the world. Perhaps its this sin, the one of trying to control her that he's ultimately punished for. Does his proximity to the Duke color his view of the world? Does he see all men as lecherous?
Like I said, these are the first things that run through my head as I watch this opera. I've found that I'm not reading the subtitles as much as listening and watching what's happening on stage. I realize that I'm really drawn in when the emotion and presence of the actors is more important than ever word they say. Heck I can't understand half the lyrics of songs I listen to on my iPod, why this need to have every word clearly defined.
The Opera is compelling and I'll be interested to see how the next few acts are…
The rough scene change of the first act clearly threw the performers off their game as the second act is noticeably stronger. Realized I totally forgot to mention the stellar performance by Keith Miller as Count Monterone. He's on stage for mere moments and he's simply fantastic. But the show is all about the duets between Rigoletto and Gilda. The opera revolves around them and the union of Mark Rucker, Sarah Coburn and conductor George Manhan is the real reason to see this opera. Richard Troxell was much better in the second act with admittedly more to work with.
I feel remiss for not mentioning how much I've enjoyed the orchestration, the musical performance has been really solid. George Manhan makes you forget he's there, nice to see a conductor so pitch perfect and so humble.
Story wise I find it interesting how Rigoletto sheds his role as the fool and tries to assume power, he shoes all the lords away and threatens his revenge on the Duke. The chorus says how you have to indulge children and madmen sometimes, but is Rigoletto either? Is the fool really able to have power? In the first act he sits on the Duke's throne in mockery, but in act II he seems to have some real authority over the other men who seem mortified that the practical joke they plaid on him was not with his mistress but with his daughter. I love the moment they realize this, it's the best moment with the chorus who all collectively seem to feel the same feeling at the same moment. Wish there had been more of that at the end of act I.
I love the line that Rigoletto delivers that talks about how much can change over the course of a day. What would have happened if Rigoletto just left well enough alone, listened to his daughter and accepted her love for the Duke? Is his undoing pride here? At the top of the act it's almost impossible to feel any sence of empathy for The Duke who thinks his love is gone, Are we being asked by Verdi to want the Duke to be dead. When you really think about it all Act 2 is pretty subversive. The Fool becomes the force of vengence and the Duke becomes the fool… You know it doesn't end well and yet when Rigoletto and Gilda sing together some how you wish that it could….
The final act has all the juicy moments you go to opera for. It's big and tragic. The one issue I have is that Richard Troxell never makes us believe that the women of Rigoletto would literally love the Duke to death. When Gilda dies in place of the Duke all I can ask is WHY? I mean she knows full well that the Duke is a womanizer. La Dona e mobile is practically an insult to women in general and the Duke professes his same "love" to Maddelen as he does to Gilda and yet she dies in his place. I can understand her trying to save her father from Sparafucile's knife but The Duke?
Perhaps if the Duke were played more electrically we'd understand. But Troxell moves through the third act without the charisma we need to believe. He sings La Dona e mobile like it's a greatest hits he's had to sing over and over, but would rather be singing something else. It's a critical moment lost. We've seen him profess his love to her in the first act and we needed to see him be both despicable and utterly irritable here. Maddelen sells it, Gilda sells it but the Duke doesn't.
The high point of the third act for me is the quartet between Rigoletto, Gilda Sparafucle and Maddelen. Portland Opera's staging of Rigolleto really comes alive outside of the solos. Heck it comes to life any time Sarah Coburn steps onto the stage.
I find myself asking… what if Rigoletto hadn't waited to exact his revenge? He asks Sparafucile to wait to set up the hit on the Duke, is this a nod to the indecision that faced Hamlet. Had Rigoletto hired him in act one then Gilda wouldn't have died! And ultimately Rigoletto pays the ultimate price for his attempt at vengeance… Is Verdi siding with the royalty or covering up the subversive subplot, and what happens next? Will Rigoletto have what it takes to face the Duke himself or is Gilda's death his literal ruin. A lot of stuff to chew on…
What strikes me the most is how in an opera mostly populated by male roles (and an all male chorus) it's the women performers who shine the brightest. Both Sarah Coburn as Gilda and Jossie Perez as Maddalena are superb. While their characters fall blindly in love with the Duke, while Gilda is kidnapped and 'ravished' and ultimately killed, she's still the strongest of the bunch…
In all, I enjoyed Rigoletto very much. I did have issues with the lighting, but in the face of everything else it feels like a nit. The show is worth seeing for no other reason than to see the union of Sarah Coburn, Mark Rucker and the Portland Opera orchestra. If Richard Troxell can up his game as The Duke during the run (and I truly believe he can) it could really morph into something special, he's the key to elevate this very good production to a really great one, if he can make us believe then it becomes something much bigger and profound.
Here are links to my fellow Portland Opera Bloggers and their take on the evening:
- Julie Grauert of Good Day Oregon
- CulturePulp Opera Blog Sketches
- another portland blog
- KGW's 7 on The Square TV Coverage
Other Portland Opera Rigoletto Links: