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Pittsburgh Opera stages Verdi's 'Rigoletto'

| Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, 9:03 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband
Lyubov Petrova as Gilda and Mark Delavan as Rigoletto in the Pittsburgh Opera's 'Rigoletto.' Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jasmine Goldband
Mark Delavan as Rigoletto in the Pittsburgh Opera's 'Rigoletto.' Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jasmine Goldband
Lyubov Petrova as Gilda and Mark Delavan as Rigoletto in the Pittsburgh Opera's 'Rigoletto.' Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review

Giuseppe Verdi was famous long before “Rigoletto.” He'd already written a dozen operas, but this was the first of three consecutive mega-hits that took opera to another level. And after completing “La Traviata” and “Il Trovatore,” Verdi still thought “Rigoletto” was clearly his best opera.

It remains one of his most popular operas, as well, filled with many unforgettable arias and ensembles.

Pittsburgh Opera will open its season with “Rigoletto” at performances Saturday and Oct. 9, 12 and 14 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. It is based on Victor Hugo's drama “Le Roi s'amuse,” with the libretto by Francesco Piave.

The opera is set in the 16th century at the corrupt court of the Duke of Mantua. Rigoletto, a deformed man who lives by his wits, is court jester. He's a widower who has shielded his daughter, Gilda, from the Duke's world by having her raised by nuns.

In the first scene, we see Rigoletto use his acid wit to ridicule two men outraged by the Duke's seduction of, respectively, their wife and daughter. The father, Monterone, lays a curse on Rigoletto.

Later in the opera, Gilda is kidnapped and taken to the Duke's bedroom, but the curse is only partly fulfilled. When Rigoletto arranges for the Duke to be murdered, the curse strikes home a second time.

“Whenever Verdi approached a libretto or an idea he had a ‘tinta,' a sound color, in mind,” says conductor Antony Walker. “You can hear this from the first measures of ‘Rigoletto.' It very somber and foreboding, the sound of trumpets with shifting chords underneath.”

Walker notes that Verdi's next opera, “La Traviata,” “starts with a prelude that tells you she will die at the end. ‘Rigoletto's' opening signals the malevolence of the curse.

“It's through the whole piece. I love that. Even the party scene that starts the first act has offstage banda music with a menacing and biting tinge,” he says. “As opposed to ‘Traviata's' party, which is frivolous, this party is nasty — a wonderful way to state this piece.”

Familiarity with the era in which the opera is set, the Renaissance, has been heightened according to stage director Linda Brovsky, by movies like “Shakespeare in Love” and television series on the Tudors and Borgias.

“We're trying to find the truth of the piece that, frankly, I think audiences today demand of all art forms. We realize that these were flesh and blood people. The Renaissance was an incredible time of sensuality and luxury, and cruelty,” Brovsky says. “Never before had there been such magnificence. Rome didn't have the textiles. Add all the new ideas of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, great poets and musicians — all this stuff going on available to the aristocracy.”

Tenor Michael Wade Lee, who will portray the Duke, is looking forward to singing some of Verdi's most memorable numbers, including the arias “Questo o quella” and “La donne e mobile,” as well as the great quartet in the last act.

But while he likes his character, he isn't sure he can relate to him.

“In his mind and in his time, he wasn't doing anything wrong,” Lee says. “When you were born into the aristocracy, or married into it, certain privileges came along. It was the mode of the day. I don't really see him as a villain. With all his female conquests, he never means to hurt anybody. If he's a villain, it's only because we look at his action today as immoral or unethical. I don't want to play him as a villain, and I don't want to sing him as a villain. He's out to enjoy his life and his position.”

Gilda is the light of the opera, according to soprano Lyubov Petrova, who will play her. In contrast with the Duke and Rigoletto, Gilda is the one character who isn't manipulative, Petrova says, but instead tries to make other people's lives better.

“I love singing Verdi. It's a pleasure for every singer,” the soprano says. “There are a lot of beautiful arias and duets, all different. She's great as a character, as she develops in the opera. She starts as a very young and happy teenager and through the two to three hours becomes more of a woman who's ready to die for people she loves.”

Rigoletto is a far more complicated character than Mark Delavan thought when he began singing the role in his 30s. He's performed in many stagings, the nadir of which was a production in 2005 in Munich, a kind of “Planet of the Apes” in which one character was a gorilla, another an orangutan, and another a gibbon. By contrast, a park performance a year later, with no costumes or makeup, was wonderful, he says, because it left everyone to concentrate on the music.

While Delavan used to play Rigoletto as evil, his perspective has broadened. As a deformed man, Rigoletto's most likely employment would have been in a circus — a life of poverty. Instead, he uses his wit to become a favorite of the Duke at court, to save enough money to buy a house and manage to have his daughter raised in a healthy environment by nuns.

“I'm not certain how evil he is,” Delavan says. “Yes, his anger is over the top. But, as a father, it's hard to be judgmental. He is most assuredly an anti-hero. He's everyman's anti-hero.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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