Monday, August 3, 2015

A dark, driven "Rigoletto" at Union Avenue Opera

Jordan Shanahan and Lacy Sauter
Photo: John Lamb
Union Avenue Opera is following up on its highly praised "Don Giovanni" with an impressive production of Verdi's 1851 tragedy, "Rigoletto." From the ominous brass fanfares that open the prelude to Rigoletto's final despairing howl of "La maledizione" ("the curse"), Tim Ocel's knowing direction drives this "Rigoletto" to its tragic conclusion with the relentless energy of a runaway train.

Implacably dark and menacing, this tale of men behaving incredibly badly is dominated by low voices—basses, baritones, contraltos, and mezzos. The prevalence of those darker and richer sounds is a characteristically smart theatrical decision by Verdi; it lends a sense of inescapable weight to the story of a revenge plot gone horribly wrong.

Jordan Shanahan and James Callon
Photo: John Lamb
That only works, of course, if you have strong singers for those roles. Happily Union Avenue has them in abundance here, with pride of place going to baritone Jordan Shanahan in the title role. If you've seen UAO's "Rheingold," "Siegfried," or "Dead Man Walking," you already now that Mr. Shanahan boasts both a big, wide-ranging voice (with solid bottom notes that sound more like the work of a bass-baritone) and an approach to acting that allows him to completely inhabit his characters. His horror movie makeup is so obviously artificial that it's a bit distracting, but the fierce commitment of his performance makes that a minor issue.

As the feckless (if not downright sociopathic) Duke who callously seduces, assaults, and then abandons Rigoletto's daughter Gilda, tenor James Callon is just as smugly repellent as he should be. He had a couple of rough notes in the second and third acts on opening night, but otherwise sang with admirable clarity garnering the expected applause with popular arias like "La donna è mobile".

James Callon and Mark Freiman
Photo: John Lamb
Soprano Lacy Sauter, who was such a heartbreaking Blanche in "Streetcar Named Desire" last season, returns to UAO as Gilda, whose absurdly self-sacrificing nature leads to the opera's tragic conclusion. The very implausibility of the character is, in my view, a real obstacle for any actress, but Ms. Sauter manages to pull it off with a convincing characterization and a voice that easily navigates the coloratura passages in the famous "Caro nome" aria in Act I.

Bass-baritone Patrick Blackwell is the doomed Count Monterone, whose dying curse falls heavily on Rigoletto and bass Mark Freiman is the ironically principled assassin Sparafucile. They're both compelling actors, with big, powerful voices that fill the UAO space. There's fine singing as well by Mezzo Kristee Haney, darkly seductive as Sparafucile's sister and partner in crime Maddalena.

This is, in short, a very strong cast, right down to the smallest walk-ons. That includes Debby Lennon as Gilda's nurse Giovanna, Andy Papas as the put-upon Count Ceprano, Anthony Heinemann the sneering courtier Borsa, and Robert Garner as Marullo, whose momentary attack of conscience, while not explicitly called out in the libretto, nevertheless makes good dramatic sense.

Patrick Blackwell
Photo: John Lamb
Union Avenue's chorus sings with impressive power and clarity. Under Scott Schoonover's usual expert direction the orchestra sounds impressive despite its small size and the vocal/instrumental balance is quite good.

Tim Ocel has demonstrated on more than one occasion that he knows how to handle the unique demands of the operatic stage—most recently in UAO's stunning "La Traviata" last season. He has done it again with this "Rigoletto," maintaining a sense of tragic inevitability while still allowing the big musical moments to breathe.

Kristee Haney and Mark Freiman
Photo: John Lamb
Kyra Bishop's deliberately shabby set with its peeling plaster and exposed lathe and Teresa Doggett's intentionally drab costumes (only Rigoletto has any real color) are presumably intended to underline the moral decay that pervades Francesco Maria Piave's libretto. If so, they do the job admirably. Paige Seber's lighting, however, is so dim that faces are sometimes lost. I'm not sure that the darkness of "Rigoletto" needs to be that visible.

Union Avenue Opera's admirable "Rigoletto" runs through August 9th at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright in the Central West End. The opera is sing in Italian with projected English text. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8, although given that parking on the lot is at a premium, you'll want to get there by 7:30 if possible. For more information, visit the company's web site.

This review originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.