Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Lyric's Rigoletto

“Rigoletto’’ includes some of Verdi’s most beloved tunes, ranging from “La donna e mobile” — that mandatory showcase for high-flying tenors — to the Act III quartet, which serves as a focal point for the current Maggie Smith movie, “Quartet.” But both as a drama and in terms of its music, “Rigoletto’’ is much more than a collection of greatest hits. Barlow kept the stage action moving in this production set in 16th century Italy while Rogister emphasized the powerful sweep of Verdi’s score. The result was a performance that unfolded with a sense of constant forward motion.

Lyric Opera of Chicago is wrapping up its regular 2012-13 subscription season with a guaranteed crowd pleaser, Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”

No shame in that, given the crisply paced, generally gorgeously sung revival Monday night of the company’s handsome production, first seen in 2005-06. This presentation offers some impressive Lyric debuts, including Polish baritone Andrzej Dobber in the title role, American conductor Evan Rogister in the pit and Australian-born Stephen Barlow directing the stage action. Another Lyric newcomer, Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova, was utterly luminous as Rigoletto’s innocent, teenage daughter, Gilda.

The opera’s storyline is propelled by Gilda’s infatuation with the heartless Duke of Mantua (Italian tenor Giuseppe Filianoti). But it’s the loving relationship between the embittered jester, Rigoletto, and his cherished daughter that melts our hearts.

Rigoletto is something of a specialty for Dobber, a tall man whose jester seemed to carry the world’s weight on his broad, misshapen shoulders. (Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic sings the role in performances March 14-30.) Loathing his work at a debauched duke’s court, desperately worried about the future of his beautiful, naive daughter, Rigoletto is a character who veers from snarling cynicism to wrenching filial love. Dobber’s strong, agile baritone took on chilling grit and grain as he accused the Duke’s courtiers of kidnapping Gilda. But in his duets with his daughter, Dobber had the warmth of a pure-hearted father justifiably terrified for his daughter’s safety.

A young soprano whose career is taking her to the major American and European operas houses, Shagimuratova was a thrilling Gilda. Her soprano is clear and pure, and in the dulcet aria “Caro nome,” her phrases blossomed and melted away like gentle caresses. She was every inch the innocent girl basking in the glow of her first real romance. But later in a duet with Rigoletto, as she poured out the tale of her kidnapping and sexual encounter with the Duke, her voice took on a darker shading. As Rigoletto vowed vengeance on the Duke, she stood her ground, with her urgent, forceful singing making a case that he forgo vengeance for forgiveness.

Slim and handsome, Filianoti cut a convincing figure as the sexually inexhaustible, creepily charming Duke. He had difficulty with high notes early on, but his singing sounded more open and relaxed as the evening progressed. Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli, a Lyric favorite, brought a textured, sepulchral bass to the role of hired assassin, Sparafucile. Making her Lyric debut, Nicole Piccolomini offered both a dusky mezzo-soprano and earthy dark-haired beauty as Maddalena, Sparafucile’s sister and partner in crime. As the wronged Count Monterone, American baritone Todd Thomas thundered with heaven-shaking rage.

“Rigoletto’’ caps a Lyric season that also included a compelling production of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra.” The opera world is celebrating the bicentennial of his birth this year, and Lyric’s decision to offer two Verdi productions was a fitting response for a company whose devotion to Italian opera in its early decades once prompted the nickname “La Scala West.”

Wynne Delacoma is a free-lance contributor.

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