Opera opens season with powerful 'Rigoletto'

| Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012, 9:30 a.m.

The power and beauty of “Rigoletto,” as well as its popularity, made it an excellent choice to open Pittsburgh Opera's season Saturday night at Byham Theater, Downtown.

Music director Antony Walker and the opera orchestra set the stage with a dramatic reading of the Prelude that was broadly ominous, yet built to an intensity that reached a sense of desperation.

When the curtain rises, we see sets and costumes from Utah Opera, which, to start, show the interior of the Duke of Mantua's stone palace, where a party is in progress.

Almost immediately, Giuseppe Verdi offers the first of many hits in this opera, the aria “Questa o quella.” Later, the young Duke will sing of how women are fickle. In this aria, he declares his freedom to flit from one woman to another.

Walker made a lovely tempo transition, unmarked by Verdi, to the intended slower tempo for “Questa o quella.” Tenor Michael Wade Lee sang it with some bravura, but didn't sound fully warmed up, and was a little more determined than carefree. Lee sang with more volume later in the opera, including the famous aria “La donne e mobile,” but sometimes sounded forced.

The portrayal of Rigoletto by Mark Delavan was magnificent from start to finish. It was a mature characterization of the deformed court jester with a cutting tongue, sensitive to the contradictory elements in his role's intense personality. Delavan was in magnificent voice, full-bodied not merely in volume but also in coloration and dramatic nuance that grew out of superb diction.

Rigoletto's taunting of a father and husband protesting the Duke's seduction of their daughter and wife leads to the curse, “La Maledizione,” which carries through to the final curtain. Subsidiary roles in this production were well handled by the opera's resident artists, including Joseph Barron as Monterone, who utters the righteous curse.

Rigoletto is a different man at home, where his nastiness evaporates and he cherishes his daughter Gilda. He tries to shield her from the cynicism and corruption of the court, but doesn't know a young man has already caught her eye. Lyubov Petrova offered a keenly drawn account of the teenage girl. She has a beautiful and agile voice.

Her big aria, “Caro nome,” sings of her love, although the dear name of which she sings is a false one given by the Duke. Petrova's performance would have benefited from less vibrato and clearer diction, but the later portions of the aria (particularly following the second little cadenza) were exemplary.

When Gilda is abducted for the Duke in the second act, it's Rigoletto's turn to call for vengeance. He hires the assassin Sparafucile to murder the Duke. Raymond Aceto sang the assassin with impressive legato and deep resonance.

The curse strikes a final time after the Duke seduces Sparafucile's sister (and accomplice) Maddalena, and she persuades her brother to kill the next person to come into their house instead of the Duke. Gilda overhears the conversation and sacrifices herself out of love.

The orchestra was in excellent form under Walker's leadership, with fine solos and strong ensemble spirit. The chorus was fabulous.

Walker conducted with a keen ear for Verdi's sonorities, particular dark colors. But while he always led with a sense of purpose, his tempo for the final scene between Rigoletto and his dying daughter was far too slow, which fragmented most of the potential arch of melody and feeling. For that matter, the famous Quartet earlier in the act had been too slow and also lost most of its sweep.

Pittsburgh Opera's production of “Rigoletto” will be repeated at 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Friday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14, at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Admission is $10 to $179. Details: 412-456-6666 or www.pittsburghopera.org.

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