“Rigoletto.” That’s the one that takes place in Las Vegas, right?
Well, sort of. Composer Giuseppe Verdi set his 1851 opera in the Italian duchy of Mantua in the mid-16th century, but the lack of further particulars has tempted opera directors around the world to get especially inventive lately, setting recent productions everywhere from Rat Pack-era Las Vegas to the White House and even on the Planet of the Apes.
Atlanta Opera artistic director Tomer Zvulun brings the story back down to earth by placing it squarely in its original time and place for the new co-production with Boston Lyric Opera and Opera Omaha at the Cobb Energy Centre through March 8. It’s a gripping show that aptly keeps the focus on bringing Verdi’s moments of dramatic intimacy to vivid life.
The Mantua of this “Rigoletto” is an Italian city where Renaissance order and humanism have begun to give way to Baroque decadence and Machiavellian self-interest. Rigoletto (Todd Thomas) is the hunchbacked jester who bitterly mocks and humiliates members of the court while enjoying immunity from retribution as one of the personal favorites of the self-absorbed, womanizing Duke (Scott Quinn). At home, Rigoletto is tender and loving to his young daughter Gilda (Nadine Sierra) whom he’s raising sequestered away from the malevolence of the outside world.
Verdi may be most familiar as a composer of grand opera, but it’s actually in the moments of intimate drama that the Atlanta production pops most vividly to life. Conductor Joseph Rescigno makes the orchestra sound especially fine in passages of quiet intensity, when Verdi utilizes one or two sections or smaller arrangements of instruments to elicit spooky and suspenseful dramatic textures.
The Atlanta production occasionally falls short in the grandeur department, however. Designer John Conklin’s set pieces look small, even dinky, on the Cobb Energy stage. The show is most satisfying visually when there’s almost no set at all, when a red-lit scrim descends and characters sing in isolation.
Individual costumes for court scenes are lovely, but somehow all together they don’t achieve the grand, courtly opulence many opera-goers crave. Costume Designer Vita Tzykun’s best creation is for Rigoletto: as his misfortunes pile on, his deformity becomes more visible.
Serving up that character’s heart of darkness is Thomas as a thoroughly nasty but ultimately tormented and pathetic Rigoletto, mad for vengeance even as his obsession destroys the thing he loves most. His path is one of degeneration, convincingly conveyed throughout, but Thomas’ finest moment actually comes during a moment of contrast, the purity, clarity and valor of his baritone voice as he sings his love for Gilda in the lyrical passages of Act One’s second scene.
Scott Quinn makes a handsome and seductive Duke. He brings an ease and heroism to the opera’s most famous aria “La donna è mobile,” a quality that seems more alarming as the song’s placement in the story becomes more ironic with each recurrence. Atlanta native Morris Robinson as Sparafucile brings a fine bass voice and the genuine menace of a great, old-school movie villain to the role.
One of the production’s best dramatic moments is also its most innovative. Typically, Gilda sings as she dies, a strange moment that never looks quite right on stage since it requires the lead soprano to sing a tragic duet from inside a sack. Here, Gilda comes back as a ghost or a figment of Rigoletto’s now warped imagination.
Sierra makes a Gilda who is as lovely, innocent and hopeful as a Disney princess in the show-stopping early aria “Caro Nome,” and in the final moments of the show, she sounds fantastic in her disillusionment, hauntingly dispensing a song of experience. With any luck, she’ll sound just as great in a few months when she performs the same role at the Met, where she’ll sing those last notes, not from a sack or from behind a ghostly scrim, but from the trunk of a car parked outside a Las Vegas strip club.