Nothing beats a little comeuppance. Way back to the infamous code of Hammurabi (eye for an eye, etc.) the idea of vengeance-based justice has always been a compelling force in the human narrative. When we see people escape consequence or receive too much of it, we become angry, occasionally to the point where we personally rise to action to correct the balance. Comeuppance is the essence of the powerful and beautiful Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi, now playing at Lyric Opera Chicago, however it tells a story of how sometimes the world is anything but just.
Odds are this is not your first time hearing about Rigoletto. The libretto was written in 1850 and is based on the play Le Roi S’amuse (The King Amuses Himself) by Victor Hugo. The characters and rank were slightly altered to pass the muster of the Venetian censors, who canceled Hugo’s play after just one performance. Despite these early misgivings, Rigoletto was a smashing success and sold out its 1851 opening. As of 2010 Rigoletto is in the top ten most performed operas, has been recorded dozens of times, and remains a go-to in any opera company’s repertoire. Deservedly so, Verdi penned a fantastic piece, and tells such a rich and emotional narrative both through the words but also through the dynamic and incredibly beautiful instrumentation. For all accounts Rigoletto will endure as a timeless classic.
Rigoletto is a melodrama, following the cursed life of a deformed and tormented jester, in service to the philandering and capricious Duke of Mantua. Embittered by a career as counsel to the Duke, Rigoletto encourages his master to dishonor the daughter of one of his courtiers, and when the courtier (Count Monterole) demands justice, he is instead mocked by Rigoletto, then jailed. Monterole curses Rigoletto, and this curse is played out when the Duke in turn seduces and dishonors Rigoletto’s beautiful and cloistered daughter Gilda. To satisfy his outrage, Rigoletto proves to Gilda the Duke is unfaithful, then hires an assassin (Sparafucile). Unfortunately, Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena falls for the charms of the beguiling Duke and convinces her brother to kill the next person they see. Gilda, who hears this plan, sacrifices herself as she remains devoted to the Duke’s charms.
The central theme of Rigoletto is revenge without justice. For all accounts, the Duke should not have escaped retribution for despicably abusing his power to satisfy his basest desires. He is a poster boy for a completely amoral character, and yet he experiences zero consequences for his actions. Meanwhile, Rigoletto is a deeply complicated character. He is no innocent, but his bad behavior can be attributed to a lifetime of abuse and ridicule because of his deformity. While his fate is not so grim as Hugo’s other hunchback character, Verdi makes it perfectly clear that Rigoletto was cursed before Monterole entered his life, and would continue to be until his unhappy and lonely death. I felt a powerful sympathy for his character, and an equally powerful hatred for the Duke.
The Lyric production is excellent, with some phenomenal performances across the cast and orchestra. Renowned Polish baritone Andrzej Dobber helmed the title role with great skill. Verdi is challenging material, and Dobber embodied the spirit of Rigoletto, exposing the tenderness and vulnerability underneath the callous and bitter man. My favorite performance by Dobber was the pleading Cortigliani from Act II, which was tender and emotionally powerful. Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova is an absolute show stopper as Gilda. Her aria in Act I Scene II where she has just met the charming Duke was a great showcase of her incredible range as both singer and actress. Deeply emotional and also effortlessly playful, Shagimuratova shone on every note. Equally well suited for the role was the renowned tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, who filled the room with a beautiful voice and a heavy dose of dukely swagger. He owns the iconic La Donna è mobile in Act III, and despite my deep hatred for the character, his charm was quite realistic. I cannot avoid mentioning Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli. While his part was relatively minor, I absolutely loved his performance.
With wonderful music, an approachable story, and relatable characters, Rigoletto is a great opera for first-time opera goers and veterans alike.
Rigoletto will be at Lyric Opera Chicago through March 30. For tickets and showtimes, and for more information on Rigoletto and other opera, visit www.lyricopera.org All production stills by Dan Rest.