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OPERA REVIEW

‘Rigoletto’ an Adventure in Italian Excess

Boston Lyric Opera Production Marked by Impeccable Set, Stage Direction But At Times Melodramatic

By Jennifer DeBoer
SPORTS EDITOR

Rigoletto

By Giuseppe Verdi

Boston Lyric Opera

Shubert Theater

Nov. 5, 7, 11, 14, 18, 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 9, 19, 3 p.m.

Raunchy. Horrifying. Lewd. Just right. Not how one would normally describe an opera performance. The Boston Lyric Opera, however, performed Verdi’s Rigoletto with all of the crewd aplomb with which it originally shocked its audiences.

In this, the first piece of the “Italian Season,” the BLO set loose the master himself in his finest hour; this opera has some of the most immediately recognizable tunes, and it follows all of the “rules” of the most typical operatic form.

I nearly wrote off the entire performance when the curtain opened during the overture on a scene foreshadowing the ending. Despite the friendly wave from the conductor, I was still apprehensive about the scene to come.

It was the staging and the set design that led the production. The scenery was incredible. The set designer, stage director, and light designer outdid themselves in the most poignant synthesis of visual symbols I’ve seen onstage. The blocking of the principal parts and the cast as a whole reflected each thematic subtlety. A gallery surrounded the stage and looked down upon a wooden platform. This platform served as a metaphorical stage for the action within the opera that the cast observed. The gallery made for a splendid two-level Bella figlia dell’amore.

Verdi wrote for the masses, and the BLO catered to the same crowd. The bawdiness onstage was almost unbearable, as, at certain points, it seemed to distract from the breathtaking music being performed. The Duke resembled that sketchy guy at a dance club who grinds every girl in sight more than he resembled a 16th century cavalier. His “Ella mi fu rapita,” the piece that could have saved his sleazy persona, was faltering, and his “Possente amor mi chiama” was completely unconvincing. Throughout Act II, he seemed to forget that he was supposed to be a greaseball.

I realize that Verdi was criticizing the heartless power trips of his contemporary rulers, but, the story still applies today. The scene between the Duke and Maddalena bordered on pornography. (I’m still not sure how they can sing so beautifully in those positions.) The daughter of Monterone (who also fell victim to the Duke’s overwhelming charms) was way too young by any statutory laws we have today or the Italians had way back when.

I felt like the BLO was trying to appeal to modern viewers by pushing every possible innuendo to excess. The line that, in my book, is sung “Two things, at once -- a room and some wine” became “Two things, at once -- your sister and some wine.” (As a side note, the Duke was in tight leather pants by this time.)

Normal stage directions were tossed aside in Act II so that Gilda and the Duke could pop out from under a very compromising pile of cloth together. The company might as well have left in the rape scene that was censored after the first few performances of Verdi’s work. The sex served as comedic diversion, not satirical commentary, in this case.

Dina Kuznetsova was more suited for Lucia’s mindless mental problems than for Gilda’s blossoming, innocent passion. I could barely watch her eyes bulge out of her kooky face during the emotionally charged parts. (I can’t be too judgmental here, however. If my father the jester locked me up for life with my servant, I might get cabin fever, too.) Her lyric soprano voice worked well for the young maiden that she played, but her cagey interpretation of Gilda’s naivete was a cost for the character as a whole. Sometimes her voice was too innocent (weak and breathy) to be heard over the pounding orchestra or the overpowering voice of the Duke.

Mark Rucker’s Rigoletto was the only believable principal part. Rucker truly stepped into the role, despite his late addition to the bill after the original singer of the title role was called away. His interaction with Gilda was natural, as you could see the origins of her looney behavior were genetic.

I was duly impressed by the symbolism and the representations that shone through the acting of the principals in the staging and the set design. They could not have been more Verdian. Somber lighting illuminated the walls and corresponded to the various settings of the opera. Blue ripples dominated the final scene, while angry red flames licked the walls during Rigoletto’s hateful solo in the middle of Act I. Mysterious yellow candles and a single white one were some of the only props used. And then there was the end. It was incredible. It was heart-stopping. It was perfect. Almost.

After Gilda’s comical slow-motion stabbing, she summoned all of her musical talents to produce a Lasso in cielo that was on par with the best recordings I’ve heard. Unfortunately, she also summoned up her corny B-movie impressions for a death that drew more than one uncontrollable snort from the audience.

The cortizone had returned to the gallery for the final scene -- they were fortunate enough to hear the lovely aria and see the farce that accompanied it -- and they rounded up the heavy night of symbolism. With a singly heavenly spotlight on him, Rigoletto sang the closing lines of the piece with an insane fervor that left him fatigued even through the curtain call. These appropriate overdramatics, detracting from the structured splendor of the overall work, were reminiscent of the entire evening.

All in all, it was a pleasing, one-encore performance. With an extra round of applause for the stage.