A rousing, although troubling, Rigoletto from Opera Philadelphia

Although retired since 2014, I still relish opportunities to teach, write, and share opinions.
Verdi’s Rigoletto is now being presented by Opera Philadelphia at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music until May 8. In short, the opera is a rousing affair, beautifully sung by young talents, a phenomenal men’s chorus, and thrillingly conducted by Corrado Rovaris. Its weakest link is its muddled, anachronistic direction.
Peter Leone, the opera company’s chair, writes in his letter to the audience the amazing fact that it has been 942 days since Opera Philadelphia last presented a staged performance. He also thanks the generosity of their donors who have kept the opera company alive through the pandemic. Mr. Leone also gives us the background of Rigoletto, as it was just about lifted wholesale from Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse. Unsurprisingly, Rigoletto ran afoul of the censors almost immediately as it showed nobility in less than a noble light. 
Many may feel Rigoletto is an opera that is difficult to love. The music is superb, but the characters give modern audiences much to argue over. The misshapen court fool, Rigoletto, is a nasty piece of work. He keeps his job by saying outlandish insults about people so as to make his master, the Duke of Mantua, laugh. Rigoletto had a wife who loved him, but died, leaving a girl behind who for all intents and purposes disobeys her father whenever she can. Having arrived from a convent, or wherever, only months before, Gilda has already fallen in love with an impossibly handsome youth in church. He happens to be the Duke. Gilda is obsessed with passion for him, confiding in their trusted servant Giovanna, who immediately realizes there’s a fortune to be made by planning her rape by the Duke. With deepest Italian irony, a father bursts in to confront the Duke about raping his daughter, only to be mocked by Rigoletto, who will, in turn, meet the same tragic fate with his own daughter’s rape. It gets worse. Gilda has fallen deeply, madly in love with her handsome rapist. She gladly gives her life to save the Duke from assassination in the name of love.  The end.
Thankfully, the music saves this lurid potboiler. Masterfully conducted by Maestro Rovaris, the opera is visceral and exciting. Elizabeth Braden once again works miracles with her chorus. The men literally explode with energy and malice onstage. Anthony Clark Evans looks to be barely over the age of 21, yet delivers a forceful, fully dimensional Rigoletto. Raven McMillon is the tiny powerhouse Gilda. Her mastery of the role brought down the house with acclaim several times this night. Joshua Blue had the requisite force to make the Duke memorable. The real, unexpected pleasures in casting were the murderous brother and sister duo of Sparafucile and Maddalena, generously cast with Wei Wu and Kristen Choi. 
Australian native Lindy Hulme created this production for New Zealand Opera. Anachronism runs wild in her production. Rigoletto meets Sparafucile sitting in a bus shelter. Rigoletto lives in a hovel, circa 1960, by the kitchen shown, and his always too tight, wildly patterned cardigans. The jester has a deformity, or is it just bad tailoring? In a world with television and still photography, this Mantua exists above the law. Catholic Bishops or Monsignors, in their distinctive garb, are part of the gang. Rigoletto lives in a tenement, next to a truck stop, which also happens to be right next to the castle of the Count and Countess Ceprano. Much is said by Ms. Hume about men perpetrating violence against women. But some of the worst violence in her staging is woman against woman, as Giovanna’s selling Gilda to be raped, and Maddalena stabbing, and twisting the knife into Gilda when she discovers the victim is a woman. Ms. Hume insisted on placing the legend, “Rigoletto includes themes of sexual assault and depictions of violence against women,” while ignoring graphic murder, Rigoletto beaten by a courtier who draws blood covering the Fool’s face, and male nudity. Ms. Hume goes out of her way to include call girls and Monterone’s seduced daughter in sex gear, which is usually not in any other production.
See this Rigoletto, and be ready for great singing, fine musicianship, how male beauty is good, while female beauty is a liability, and whacky staging. 
For more information, and tickets, visit www.operaphila.org 
Rigoletto is performed April 30, May 1, 6, and 8, 2022.
The 2022-2023 Season has been announced.
Details at their website.

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