La Bohéme has a special place in my heart, but Rigoletto is a better opera. Which explains why, at the end of the holidays when all I wanted was a regularly scheduled week, 2014 started out so packed with culture and art that one might call it glamorous. The week started with high concept cocktails and a loft show and culminated in opening night of Seattle Opera’s Rigoletto.
The gorgeous production is set in the 1930s, and the music is Verdi. That should be enough to send you rushing to the box office, but if you need more, the exciting part of the opera for me is the story. Usually, opera is sound and spectacle with story a distant third.
But Rigoletto is no star-crossed tenor wooing a soprano. He’s a deformed jester who makes his living encouraging the most depraved antics of his wealthy employer. The only thing he really cares about is his daughter. Although he is aware of the irony that he supports her by exploiting other young girls like her, this knowledge doesn’t help him protect her from the predations of the Duke. His daughter, Gilda, is a stereotypical opera character, but her love story is one-sided and her death is pointless, serving only to complete the tragedy of Rigoletto.
Rigoletto twists so many of opera’s beloved tropes: instead of occasion for comedy, the cross-dressed heroine is murdered; the hero is a baritone while the tenor plays the villain. And the hero is hardly heroic. He is half a villain himself, and cuts a textbook tragic figure. The most famous aria in the opera is the Duke’s supremely hummable, blithely misogynist theme song delivered following the line, “A whiskey and your sister.” One of my only issues with Rigoletto is that in avoiding so many of opera’s weakest storyline characteristics, the misogyny becomes harder to ignore. In flimsier stories, it’s more easily dismissed.
It takes some pretty strong music to distract from plot devices that can only be explained by saying, “It was obviously written by a nineteenth century male.” Fortunately for 160 years of audiences, Rigoletto’s music is incredible. No collection of beautiful arias strung together by uninteresting half-sung dialogue, every note of Rigoletto is beautiful, and Seattle Opera’s casting does it full justice. I’ve already sung the praises of Francesco Demuro’s tenor. Marco Vratogna’s rich baritone is perfect for the moral ambiguity and complexity of Rigoletto’s character. Nadine Sierra’s angelic soprano hit the same sweet spot that melted my heart when Elizabeth Caballero sang Mimi; it’s almost enough to make you excuse her character’s ridiculous sacrifice in a situation where any real-life woman would have killed the cad herself.
I shiver at the memory of Andrea Silvestrelli’s scene-stealing bass. Although the assassin is not an emotional role, Silvestrelli gave him all the tone and complexity of a tenor, but at the cavernous depths of a heavy metal death growl. I would sit through Wagner to hear him in a larger role.
Some other time I will return to the issue of misogyny in opera; but not now. Rigoletto is too beautiful, too satisfying. I will save my cultural criticisms for something less literary and less musically satisfying.