Live Blog From Portland Opera's Opening Night of Rigoletto

Rigoletto at The Portland Opera

Rigoletto at The Portland Opera

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…

ACT II

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….

ACT III

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:

Other Portland Opera Rigoletto Links:

Geoff Kleinman

10 Comments

  1. Why banter about the lighting, the costumes or props and not mention the fact that a woman is kidnapped, raped and then murdered? I don't understand how the hatred of women and massive violence toward them is worth tickets at $169 a seat?

    If you are in a domestic violence situation or want more information, please call the Portland Women's Crisis Line to talk to a confidential advocate at 503.235.5333.

    In every scene the men were taking advantage of and dominating either the lead female character or the supporting actresses via physical coercion, bribery, or emotional blackmail and manipulation. In the other scenes the men were celebrating their torture and kidnap of a young woman and oppressing the hunchback — the only person in the performance who is obviously not the able-bodied norm.

    I want to commend the performers for their incredible talent. I especially enjoyed the duet by Gilda and Rigoletto in the second act and the family quad — sister/brother, daughter/father.

    Though, I'm curious how many men will go home tonight and beat their wives, after having watched the romanticized depiction of gratuitous gender-based violence. Or I wonder how many men from the audience will pressure their dates to submit sexually.

    The statistics tell us that at least one (1) in every six (6) women in Oregon experience domestic violence and at the world wide average is one (1) in every (3) women will experience either domestic or sexual violence in their lifetimes.

    So what message are the men in the audience supposed to take home tonight after witnessing over 30 male opera characters celebrating and patting each other on the actors' back after telling the story of how they stalked a woman in the night to her home, methodically waited for the perfect moment to abduct her from her home, and drag her to the palace and gift her as the sexual "prize" of a misogynist, drunk, feudal lord?

    What men in the audience will know how to interrupt the violence when their friends are talking about hitting their partners next week? What will women say to their friends or sisters or coworkers about tonight’s performance?

    We know that intimate partner violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by friends, acquaintances, family members, and partners. The vast majority of survivors of domestic and sexual violence experience that violence from someone they know and most often someone with whom there is a foundation for a trusting relationship.

    Rigoletto was controlling of his daughter's behavior, demanding she not leave the house, for fear — and rightfully so — that the snake lord or his posse would "take her honor". The Duke, at every turn, manipulated Gilda into believing he was the only star in the sky, while in the opening 2 minutes was abusing the women in the court — pulling one woman up by her hair, dragging along another then forcing her down to the ground, to be cowering at the Duke's feet.

    Did anyone else notice that most of the women were wearing see-through slips through the majority of the opera? Really? They only had nighties?

    So, the images of manhood were plenty:
    1) the Duke: supposedly handsome, had his clothes open quite a lot, seemed a bit intoxicated the entire time. As, I've already said, he completely dominated the scenes — pushing women across the stage or creeping into their personal space to "possess" her. He was the winner because, ultimately, her got both the virgin blond and the whore brunette.

    2) Rigoletto. The hunchback crippled father of Gilda. He's the court jester that all the people laugh at. He's the "buffoon" for her must please the Duke at the Duke's whim. He's the slave in the jester's suit, twirling around the stage, to make fun of others and himself. In this story, Rigoletto is the butt of all the jokes and the tragedy.

    3) The Mercenary with the low voice who appears out from the shadows, offering to solve Rigoletto's problems with a quick use of his blade. Of, course, the Mercenary also sexually exploits his sister in the his line of work to murder for money. We know he likes wine. Did I mention that the Mercenary actually hits his sister? Right there on the stage: He slaps her face and she falls to the floor, the huddles by the wall on one side of the stage, crosses and hugs the wall on the other side too.

    The variety of male characters in the army of kidnapper predators was fair.

    4) There was one with a big round belly. He was tall and very round in the center.

    5) the man in pink. This guy was the primary insulter of Rigoletto. He'd walk with a limp, hunched over, and swing the doll Rigoletto carried, to try to humiliate the oppressed father.

    6) and their cohort, the fellow in the black cape with the eye patch. these three were the primary leaders of the predatory army, rallying the troops for rape revenge.

    and then there were dozens more men, dressed in distinct costumes, creating a great presence on stage — a fullness of strength, power, and total domination.

    In the story of Rigoletto, there were 3 main visions of women:

    1.) Gilda — our virgin who hasn't left home, she doesn't even seem to know her only family history — doesn't know who her mother was or even her father's last name. Through the majority of the show, Gilda manages to wear a nightie, as if it is a requirement to hold together the plot to see the silhoette of her body through her dress for two acts! Really?

    Gilda is often seen communicating through her body language that she is scared of the people around her. Only with her maid, did she seem relaxed enough to let down her guard, and allow the maid to brush her hair. with all the other characters — and after parting from her maid, she only ever interacted with men — she seemed a bit frightened. I would be too if I had just been abducted from my home by a group of 30 men and taken to my most certain sexual assault by one man and the probability of a host of other violations by the army of abductors.

    Even with her father she seems scared. Did anyone see the way he through his cape at her after she appeared in act 3 in the Duke's house? Did you see how he gestured his disbelief at her telling of her experience? Could you tell that Gilda was fearing reprisal from Rigoletto immediately following her kidnap and the implied sexual assault from Duke.

    2.)Gilda is nameless and totally isolated from the world, alone in her days and nights, except for her maid. the maid is our second female character — she is only allowed to speak when spoken to, for Rigoletto has obviously hit her before.

    3.) Lastly, the whore. Now I love the word whore and view sex work as a form of labor and a place of empowerment for women, unless they are clearly being exploited. When a man — in this case a brother — demands a woman — here, his sister — to prostitute herself to another man for money the brother will pocket, that is exploitation. when a man pimps a women, then hits her, that is exploitation.

    Why is the Opera showing this?

    Hey Opera execs, this show undermines the power and equality of women — half of your audience tonight — and further celebrates gender based violence in our society.

    What kind of reinforcing validation do you think was sent to the men in the audience who control their partners or their children? And if their partners were in the audience tonight, what messages do you think they received?

    You might want to consider hiring some feminist consultants to study your seasons' stories. I'm sure in a place like Portland, if you put yourself out there, you might even be able to pull in some incredible volunteer talent to explain to you how atrocious and damaging this kind of "entertainment" is to the community.

    In some circles, its called the "good 'ole boys club"; in other circles, its called Rape Culture.

  2. Well, I am finally DONE with the Portland Opera. I will not return next season….

    Last night's performance of Rigoletto was wonderful – the cast was magnificient and staging truly delightful. Bravo to all involved, we loved it!
    But over the past few years, the patron usage of cell phone and PDA's has gotten to the ridiculous (and class-less I may add) stage of middle school level teen age use throughout performances. Shameful – you ruined the evening for us all, especially the performers!

    Between the one cell that rang SIX TIMES before a patron turned it off in one of the first Acts, to the horrible patron whose cell went off at the final climax of this fabulous opera (at the death scene at the end), to the actual female BOARD MEMBER behind me texting at the start of each act (not to mention the the couple kissing every five minutes in front of us) I felt I was at a stage version of High School Musical with a bunch of undisciplined pre-teens with no culture or maturity. What has become of society? Are you really that important?

    It doesn't matter of you're a parent with children at home or a surgeon on call – turn the phones to silent, turn the screen light off, keep it in your pocket or purse- or better, leave the phones at home! Last night's opening evening was sadly disgusting and embarrassing due to these selfish patrons and I feel terribly sorry for the wonderful talent that the opera performers and directors and stage hands and orchestra et al worked for to have it ruined by these horrible people.

    To all whose phones must be attached to their body and ruin culture for all of us – go see the new Jonas Brothers movie, your rude behavior belongs elsewhere. Return to the opera when you get some class. I personally had a need to have my phone on me for an emergency: but I chose to leave it in my purse until between Acts and check only when in the privacy of a secluded hallway….it was not that hard to be discrete. If a situation calls for you being available on the second – stay home!
    In the meantime: I am sorry Portland Opera, until there is a way to rid the audience (and Board) of these impolite patrons, we will no longer attend (first time in years, sad to say) because having the beautiful evening you created for us continually ruined is not something we want to be a part of anymore. Call me when you have implemented the "you will be removed from the audience" rule that is enforced.

  3. @barbara If you looking for gender equality in classic opera, theater or literature I think you'll be sorely disappointed. The unfortunate truth is that Verdi was writing this opera at a time where women were treated as objects. But I don't think we should shun works of art which have gender messaging we don't like. If you read my live blog all the way through I comment about the fact that in a work that is dominated by dominating men it's the women who are the stronger performers. Portland Opera has given great strength to Rigoletto through the casting of such strong and dynamic women. One of the roles of art is to create discourse, and here it's provided you with a platform to express an opposing view.

    I also think the argument that men are going to go home after watching Rigoletto and beat or sexually abuse their spouses or dates is patently absurd. It's clear you have some very strong and personal issues with this topic and I can complete respect that, but the brutal truth is that someone is more likely to perpetrate the acts you ascribe to watching this production from over indulging at the bar down the street than watching even the most misogynistic work of art.

  4. @opera fan the cel phones going off during the opera was horrid, the issue came up several times at the cast reception after the opera. Mark Rucker (Rigoletto) said he could clearly hear it, but as a professional actor he didn't want to break character and address it. I also spoke to Jim Fullan, Director of Marketing & Public Relations for the Opera and he says they've tried "Everything" to try to get people to silence their phones. I know the Portland Opera is reading all the comments from this live blog, so I'm sure they'll take your comments to heart.

    From my perspective, I'd say it's unfair to punish the Opera for the acts of people in the audience. So I'm not going to stop because people are abusing their phones, but I do think an audible announcement prior to the show might help. I was at a Broadway show and they played several announcements prior to the show that were quite humorous and seemed to get people's attention.

  5. Hey Geoff-

    I think it's great that you came to the opera and had such a great experience. I don't in any way wish to discourage novices from having opinions and I especially appreciate how thorough and well written your post is! The videos are especially fun and educational to watch. I appreciate how much effort you put into researching the opera before you attended.

    What I want to explain is that I was a little shocked by the critical air of your blog post. I didn't anticipate the bloggers to be so negatively critical of the singers. None of the the other bloggers even attempted to portray any knowledge of voices or singing like you did. I understand that you are indeed an art critic, and therefore have an idea of what you like and don't like. But as a singing judge I think you are probably less experienced than say – others. In saying,

    "If Richard Troxell can up his game as The Duke during the run (and I truly believe he can)"

    you have a really condescending air. Like YOU think Richard has it in him vocally, so therefore he probably does. Richard was a last minute replacement. Usually a critic will make mention of that. Like a small kudos for putting in the extra last minute work. Also, I feel that Mark was very overlooked in your posting. Mark's Rigoletto is a once in a lifetime experience and I wish you had expressed this more. Who else can bring people to tears with "Cortigianni" (that's the big aria in the second Act)like he did? I witnessed grown men weeping at this moment. Mark lives and breathes this character with so much pathos it's as if he himself is Rigoletto. The role of Rigoletto is one of the most taxing roles ever written for the voice. The nuances of Mark's singing, his pianissimi in the top register, the vocal coloring, the sheer size and stamina of the instrument had no mention. Most people familiar with the work would have a special appreciation of how Mark contributed to the show. And what about Peter Volpe? You aren't going to hear another bass like that for a while. No mention of our excellent Sparafucile? He is a top notch bass that just fell off your radar. What about his awesome fake gold tooth that he adds just for some extra flair? Also, be more specific when you are referring to Jossie, Sarah, and Keith's singing and why they are your favorites. These are the things we love to read as fans.

    I realize that you didn't have a lot of time to collect your thoughts during intermission when you had to write this blog, but these are just some suggestions I have that might make your blog more useful to both the first time viewer and the opera aficionado. Rather than a mere acting critique with mention of who possessed your favorite voices, try to get more singing specific. Because you are a smart guy, you should express your opinion. But the next time you are asked to critique an opera, try to familiarize yourself with the art of singing and what makes a singer great. Then your opinion on the singers might be more understood. Sorry I didn't express that well enough earlier! I hope that this experience sparked your curiosity in opera and if you ever want to talk about singing, I would be more than happy to join in! I have a feeling you will become a great and knowledgeable opera critic!

  6. @Becca Fay Thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts on the live blog. I really value your input. I do think I set the stage for my comments with the opening "The only thing worst than a theater critic is a theater blogger." If you think that everything I wrote occurred in the very brief intermissions between acts you can understand that depth of analysis and precision wasn't as possible as if I had time to reflect on the piece and compose my thoughts.

    As you mentioned, unlike the other bloggers at the Opera that night I actually do have experience with critiquing performance (both from a reviewers perspective and as a performer). I didn't mean for “If Richard Troxell can up his game as The Duke during the run (and I truly believe he can)” to sound condescending. I actually didn't find out he was a last minute replacement until after I had blogged, also found out that Sarah Coburn is six months pregnant (talk about deserving kudos)!!!

    Troxell may have been a last minute replacement, but he's a world class performer and so an underwhelming performance of The Duke was quite a surprise to me and as a critical writer, wouldn't I be remiss in saying that I felt he wasn't entirely successful in his efforts?

    I also did recognize the talent of Mark Rucker. I'm always astounded at performers who can play a role over and over and over again and still find something fresh within it. For me it was his duets with Gilda that felt the most fresh and alive and I absolutely pointed that out.

    Missing talking about Peter Volpe as Sparafucile was a simple omission. I also almost missed mentioning Keith Miller as Count Monterone (I realized this during the second intermission), talk about amazing talents. I don't think I've ever seen a performer do more with fewer lines.

    Having said all that, I think Opera in general is suffering a pretty serious malaise. It's one of the reasons the bloggers were brought in. Opera has a bad rep as something only for the indoctrinated. There's a strong misconception that you have to have a knowledge base before you go see it, that you have to dress to the nines and that it's an expensive endeavor. So while my knowledge base may not be as deep when it comes to opera I think it's important to have new voices discussing the art form and bringing it to a new audience. That's why I did a preview piece, filmed the behind the scenes tour and live blogged about it. It's also why I wore jeans and a sweater and in my interview on KGW talked about how important it was for new people to try the opera out!

    But I will take you up on your offer the next time I review opera :) After enjoying Rigoletto I do plan to make sure I come back and cover more opera, and the next time around I hope to have a little more time to compose my thoughts.

  7. Thanks, Geoff! You are doing a great thing for us all in reaching a new audience. So glad we had the chance to have this dialogue! (and yes, Sarah's one of the most exciting singers in opera right now, amazing that she did this six months pregnant. Kudos! All the women in the ladies restroom were saying they had never heard a voice like hers before.)

    (also, Tutte le feste (Act II Gilda/Rigoletto duet)is my favorite part of the opera, too)

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