Manitoba Opera launched its celebratory, all-Verdi 40th anniversary season with the Italian master's Rigoletto, which still rattles the soul with its gripping tale of revenge, murder, deceit and heart-wrenching pathos. In other words, Saturday's opening performance of a three-show run was just another night at the opera for the audience of 1,750.
Based on Victor Hugo's play Le roi s'amuse, the three-act opera, composed in 1851, is considered one of Verdi's greatest works, alongside his Il Trovatore and La Traviata. Its complex plot, set in 16th-century Mantua, revolves around hunchbacked court jester Rigoletto, torn between defending the virtue of his cherished only daughter, Gilda, and avenging the lascivious Duke of Mantua, who has dishonoured her. But, like any good opera, it firmly posits the redemptive power of love as well as becoming its own cautionary tale about the vicious games people play.
Any piece of theatre often is only as good as its casting. In this case, a stellar choice of leads, directed by former Winnipegger Robert Herriot, created a strong production with nary a weak link onstage. Realistic sets designed by Lawrence Schafer (New Orleans Opera), depicting the respective locales of castle, house and inn, helped create effective stage pictures, including a striking tableau for the opening party/orgy scene. Manitoba Opera music adviser/principal conductor Tyrone Paterson sensitively led the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra throughout the three-hour evening, which had three intermissions.
American baritone Todd Thomas's powerhouse performance as the white-faced, sunken-eyed jester showcased not only his booming voice, but his equally mesmerizing acting ability. He subtly nuanced his title character with every emotional shade imaginable, turning instantly from bitter pitifulness during the Act I aria Pari siamo! -- including self-flagellation while decrying his deformity -- to hell-bent vengefulness against all those who torment him.
Winnipeg's musical treasure, world-class coloratura soprano Tracy Dahl, also triumphed in the role of Gilda. The petite singer with a stratospheric voice hit just the right note with her not-so-innocent character desperately in love with the Duke. Her electrifying Caro Nome, with each note crafted as a multi-faceted jewel, rightfully earned sustained applause from the audience. Dahl's effortlessly sung Act II aria Tutte le feste al tempio also displayed her innate gifts as a singing actress, as did the touching finale, Chi mai, chi è qui in sua vece? where she tearfully begs her father for forgiveness.
Newfoundland tenor David Pomeroy imbued his lecherous Duke with hotheaded passion and wanton playfulness. He projected his deeply resonant voice well beyond the footlights in the opening Questa o quello, as well as during Act II's intricate quartet, Bella figlia dell'amore, sung with Dahl, Thomas and South African-Canadian mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal as the seductive harlot Maddalena. Pomeroy also filled the opera's eternally famous aria, La donna è mobile, with swaggering confidence and ringing high notes that becomes key to its own dénouement.
American bass Peter Volpe, double-cast as the villainous Count Monterone and assassin Sparafucile, created an intriguing doppelgänger worthy of further contemplation. Volpe's thunderous curse on the jester as the Count during Act I's Ch'io gli parli would make anyone collapse in fear. His slithery hit man included his declamatory voice sinking to the utter depths in Quel vecchio maledivami!
An all-male ensemble from the Manitoba Opera Chorus, prepared by Tadeusz Biernacki, presented as the velvety courtiers, crisply enunciating the chorus Zitti, ziti, mujoviamo a vendetta, where they kidnap Gilda. But as pranksters who ultimately drive the action by goading the jester, they often appeared too courtly mannered, with their relatively stiff staging bypassing many golden opportunities to show their true, nasty stripes.
Bill Williams' lighting design proved mostly effective despite Act III's wild storm flashes that appeared too stylized in an otherwise traditional production. And Dahl, especially when costumed in her drab boy's disguise in the final scene, virtually disappeared into the shadows during the trio Ah, pi� non ragiono! where she vows to sacrifice herself for her devilish lover.
It might seem a no-brainer to program an entire season of Verdi, especially during a milestone anniversary season. The composer's intensely dramatic operas still resonate, for better or worse, with 21st- century audiences. However, the company has made a wise choice in Rigoletto, with a particularly strong cast that fearlessly delivers this timeless tale.
Through Friday, November30
Centennial Concert Hall
(four and a half stars out of five)