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Andrzej_Dobber at the Lyric Opera Chicago

Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave,

after the play Le roi s’amuse by Victor Hugo (1832)

Music by Giuseppe Verdi

Stage direction by Stephen Barlow

Conductor: Evan Rogister

 Heart-rending, profound drama and gripping singing marred by tastelessness

Verdi’s iconic 1851 opera Rigoletto – immortalized if through nothing else for its ironically infectious Act III aria La donna è mobile – is an exceptionally intense tear-jerker, even by its genre’s rather dour standards.  At the same time, the story, which was derived from a play by Victor Hugo, contains a high order of psychological power, something that certainly cannot be taken for granted in opera.  One is tempted to describe it as a cross between soap-opera and Greek tragedy, although that would be to belittle both the humanity and the true emotional power of the opera.  Rigoletto, the friendless hunchbacked jester to the wildly promiscuous Duke of Mantua, is desperate to shelter his young daughter, Gilda, the only family he has left, from the unscrupulous clutches of the duke; the tragic outcome testifies to the corrosive powers of vengeance, lust, and fate.

 Lyric Opera Chicago

On the podium for Lyric’s current production is the young American conductor Evan Rogister, who makes his Lyric Opera debut with these performances and will soon return to conduct Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire.  The orchestra sounded fine under his direction, although not quite as inspiring as it did recently in Wagner’s Meistersinger.  To be fair, this ensemble’s strengths are color and warmth of tone rather than precision, and while Wagner is not exactly the easiest music for orchestras to play, the former traits are arguably more important in Late-Romantic German opera than in Italian opera, which demands a lively and pointed sparkle; the Lyric orchestra never sounded completely comfortable in all the fast runs Verdi gives it, although the more atmospheric moments in the score were served well.

Lyric Opera Chicago

That said, whereas Wagner’s orchestral writing in Meistersinger is rich and complex enough to compete with the stage drama for the audience’s attention, the same cannot be said of Verdi’s when he penned Rigoletto; the orchestration is always tasteful and often quite appealing, but it is comparatively very straightforward and rarely rises above being accompaniment to the singers – and where Wagner could not touch Verdi was in vocal melody.  In terms of performance, this meant that the lack of virtuosic playing in the pit was no great liability here – Rigoletto is a singer’s opera, and thankfully it was the voices that were far and away the production’s highlight.  The cast must surely be one of the finest to be heard at the Lyric this season, with nearly nothing to be demanded from any of the leads (most of whom are making their Lyric debut, with the exception of Giuseppe Filianoti as the duke) in richness, power (no struggling to project over the orchestra!), and dramatic conviction.

Lyric Opera Chicago

As Rigoletto, Polish baritone Andrzej Dobber sang with great tonal beauty throughout while starkly conveying by turns all of the jester’s sense of terror, fury, and helplessness.  (Dobber will be replaced by Željko Lučić for all performances beginning March 14.)  Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova was a most sympathetic and sweetly-singing Gilda, an emblem of guileless love taken to a tragic extreme.  Filianoti crooned a bit as the Duke, which worked rather well for this inveterate womanizer; yet he projected such unaffected tenderness in his Act I duet with Gilda that her undying, hapless trust in him seemed nearly justifiable.  Also noteworthy was bass Andrea Silvestrelli’s arresting portrayal of the sinister assassin Sparafucile.

I do have a serious bone to pick with Lyric over this production; namely, the blatant over-sexualization, particularly in the first act.  The Duke’s uncontrolled promiscuity is perfectly demonstrated by the story of the opera itself, and there is absolutely no need for the really quite silly and utterly tasteless gimmick of having him half-naked as he hosts his court in the first scene – in his bedroom, to boot!  There was also no need to so vividly depict him trying to take liberties with a very young woman at the beginning.  These were needlessly offensive effects, a cheap attempt at shock value, to say nothing of how demeaning they ultimately are to the singers; this sort of thing is a poor way to “sell” opera to new audiences, if that is indeed what managements thereby intend to do.  This production is recommended for its stellar cast and, of course, Verdi’s music, but not for its excessive and gratuitous sensuality; and those who, like this critic, hope that the latter does not end up as the norm for opera productions are hereby warned.


Samuel Wigutow

At the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N Wacker Dr, Chicago, IL , (312) 332-2244,, tickets $64 – $224, running time 2 hours, 40 minutes with one intermission, through March 30, 2013

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