No Mansplaining Allowed – Opera Theatre’s Excellent ‘Rigoletto’ Still Relevant After All These Years

By CB Adams
Contributing Writer

In a cultural marketplace that is embracing new operatic works such as “The Central Park Five” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” is another production of Verdi’s venerable chestnut Rigoletto really necessary – or even relevant?  Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ current production of Rigoletto provides a chorus of emphatic yeses.

Although it can be asserted that the opera canon in general and Rigoletto in particular is testosteroney (to borrow a line from “Friends”), misogynistic and seemingly anachronistic in the current #MeToo cultural climate, OTSL’s production brings to the fore the question, “Who is the true victim of the machinations of the men in this play?”

The answer in this interpretation is clear: Rigoletto’s own daughter, Gilda. She has lived her short life cloistered in a tight ring of chastity, raised by an overly protective father (or hostage-taker, depending on your point of view), whose nickname is Transgression. She falls in first-love with the duplicitous Duke (dubbed Retribution), whom she meets at her seemingly only contact with the real world – Mass at the local church (another male-dominated institution). The poor girl. Given such options and opposing forces, it’s no wonder she believes self-destruction is the only way to escape this milieu of trickle-down masculinity.

Even before the orchestra tunes up, OTSL’s latest take on Rigoletto begins to pull the audience members out of their comfort zone. Sitting on a trunk, center stage in low light, is Rigoletto’s puppet, staring blankly like a demented Charlie McCarthy dummy, a chubby-cheeked Chucky. He seems to be saying, “Let the horror begin.”

This conceit by itself would not be enough to carry the opera. The cast, under the stage direction of Bruno Ravella, who is making his main season debut, is fully up to the challenge of Verdi’s memorable score and this production’s challenging, polarizing balance. Roland Wood immerses himself in the role of Rigoletto, the Duke’s own dummy, as a man resentfully balanced (or unbalanced, depending on your point of view) between being a father/manipulator and being manipulated as the Duke’s court jester. Wood effectively leads the audience to ponder: “Should I blame you or pity you?”

As the Duke, Joshua Wheeker, is a selfish puppeteer extraordinaire. He does not overplay the indulgent, king-baby aspects of the role and instead offers a straightforward “what the Duke wants, the Duke gets” attitude – and to hell with who pays consequences. His short-sighted need for instant gratification enables the storylines of Rigoletto and Gilda to unravel. In terms of relevance, this should be familiar to anyone who follows the current news cycles.

Navigating (or trapped, depending on your point of view) between a fiercely overprotective father and a hedonistic lover is the wonderful and wonderfully cast So Young Park, a former Gerdine Young Artist. With seeming effortlessness, Park wends through her a role that demands she be naïve without being girlishly gushy (ala Liesl’s “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” in Sound of Music). Young accomplishes this as well as meshes her performances seamlessly with Wood, especially in Act II.  

Among the supporting cast, Christian Zaremba, making his Opera Theatre main season debut, plays Sparafucile, the assassin, with reserve and respect – admirable considering how easy it would have been to overplay the part with squinty sliminess. Zaremba’s straightforward, transactional portrayal facilitates the opera rather than calls too much attention to the role. Also of note is the horn-dog horde – the male chorus that moves about the opera en masse, providing light humor, encouragement to the Duke’s predilections (as only good sycophants can) and locker-room banter.

OTSL’s Rigoletto is set in Paris, where Victor Hugo set his play, which is the source for this opera. The Francophile-inspired set design, under the aegis of Alex Eales, is understated, streamlined and efficiently conveys the essence of each scene. The opening scene keys off a recognizable Folies Bergere atmosphere and the inn where Sparafucile and his sister conspire to murder the Duke is distinctly saloon-like in a Wild West sort of way. On the surface this may seem incongruent, but the sets well within the opera’s polarizing elements. They provide “just enough” background for the story.

Like the set design, costume design, by Mark Bouman, does not break new ground, but neither does it break the flow of the entire opera. Both serve well the story being told. In Act I’s party scene, the dresses of the dancing ladies have a pleasing Manet, demimondaines quality. Sparafucile sports a Driza-Bone-inspired duster that makes him instantly recognizable regardless of the scene. And Gilda wears dresses – girlish without being girly – that befit a young lady with a conservative father. Even Gilda’s final costume, when she is posing as man, is Chaplinesque in a way that makes sense within this production.

Rigoletto may be one of Verdi’s workhorse operas, but like all great art, it is open to wide interpretation. Just as Paul Simon observed that “every generation throws a hero up the pop charts,” every generation since the premiere in 1851 has produced a Rigoletto befitting its times. OTSL’s is exceptionally no exception. #GoSeeRigoletto.

“Rigoletto” plays at the Loretto-Hilton Center through June 30. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.experienceopera.org

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