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Divine voices power a father-daughter tragedy in ‘Rigoletto’

Quinn Kelsey is Rigoletto, with Rosa Feola as his daughter, Gilda, in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Verdi's "Rigoletto." | Todd Rosenberg Photography

Giuseppe Verdi is the Shakespeare of Italian opera. And while “Rigoletto” — unquestionably one of his greatest works — has a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave that is based on a play by Victor Hugo, it was Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” with its themes of a man who is both taunted and taunting, whose fierce desire to protect his daughter is his undoing, and whose quest for revenge ends in tragedy, that came to mind most often Saturday as Lyric Opera of Chicago raised the curtain on its altogether dazzling production of “Rigoletto.”

Driven by a perfect storm of glorious singing, superb acting and stunning design, the performance was met by the sort of extended ovation not often heard these days. And it deserved every bravo that echoed through the audience.

Highly recommended
When: Oct. 7 – Nov. 3
Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
Tickets: $59 – $319
Info: (312) 827-5600; www.lyricopera.org/Rigoletto
Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission

Rosa Feola is Gilda and Matthew Polenzani is the Duke of Mantua in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” | Todd Rosenberg Photography

The sense that a great tragedy was about to unfold could be heard from the moment the orchestra, under the lyrical but precisionist direction of Marco Armiliato, sounded the first ominous bars of the overture, and the curtain rose on the blood-red sky of designer Michael Yeargan’s steeply raked cityscape of Mantua, Italy, whose arched doorways, exaggerated perspective and bursts of saturated color (vividly lit by Chris Maravich and embellished by Constance Hoffman’s lavish costumes) is inspired by the early 20th century paintings of Giorgio de Chirico.

In addition, the excellent director, E. Loren Meeker, has devised an inspired innovation, so that as the overture is still being played we see a bereft Rigoletto (Quinn Kelsey), court jester to the Duke of Mantua (Matthew Polenzani), peering up at the small window where he once believed he could keep his beloved daughter, Gilda (Rosa Feola), safely hidden away. That, of course, was not to be. And the rest is a flashback of the catastrophic events.

A bitter man, who spares no one his insults, Rigoletto is widely despised at court. His master, too, has churned up great resentment, for he is a compulsive womanizer who claims that the impulse to live freely is a spiritual calling of sorts.

When the Duke spots the naive but beautiful Gilda — ironically enough in church, the only place her father has allowed her to go to since she arrived in Mantua three months earlier — he immediately pursues her, never revealing his true identity. And she is instantly smitten.

At the same time, the court is rife with gossip that Rigoletto has “a mistress,”  and Marullo (Takaoki Onishi), Count Ceprano (Alan Higgs) and other victims of the jester’s sarcasm gather their friends for a plan to abduct her. When Rigoletto unexpectedly arrives at the scene, he is duped into thinking it is Count Ceprano’s wife, rather than his own daughter (who they believe to be his mistress), and he becomes complicit in the scheme, only realizing what has happened when it is too late.

There is much more, of course, but suffice it to say that in his quest for retribution, Rigoletto ends up losing the one person he loves most in the world.

In an altogether sublime cast it is Feola, the Italian soprano with a voice of honey-coated warmth and easeful technical brilliance that is paired with exceptional acting skills and natural beauty, who steals the stage. Her performance of the extended aria “Cara nome” is breathtaking — full of the surprise and fever of first love.

Kelsey, the formidable baritone (reprising his portrayal of Rigoletto with the San Francisco Opera, where this production began) also is a superb dramatic actor, and he ideally captures the sense of a man who knows he is cursed and keeps walking into many traps of his own making.

Polenzani’s lustrous tenor shines throughout, most notably in his unapologetic, philosophy-defining aria,  “La donna e mobile.”

Alexander Tsymbalyuk brings his fine bass voice and a wonderfully creepy sense of cool evil to the role of Sparafucile, the hired assassin. As his sister, Maddalena, a girl who has been around but is still vulnerable to the Duke of Mantua’s advances, mezzo-soprano Zanda Svede makes a strong impression. And there also is fine work by Todd Thomas, and a particularly stunning massing of the male chorus as the conspiratorial courtiers.

And then there is Verdi, the unmatched master of musical drama. To be reminded of his genius you need listen only to the “split screen” Act III quartet in which Rigoletto and Gilda, and Mantua and Maddalena sing so brilliantly in what is a perfect counterpoint of their opposing characters and agendas. Fantastic.

Quinn Kelsey plays Rigoletto, jester to the Duke of Mantua, in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” |  Todd Rosenberg Photography