The power of a curse lies at the heart of many an opera, and at the heart of no greater one than Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto, which received two performances from the Knoxville Opera Company last weekend.
While in the context of 19th-century theatre, such a melodramatic tool—la maledizione ("the curse")—was not an uncommon motif around which a music drama could be built, Verdi and his librettist, Franceso Maria Piave, avoiding the pitfalls of a superficial dramatic device, carried the symbolic idea to a much deeper level. Verdi wove what may be his most tuneful score in and around the psychological implications of the curse to create a briskly advancing story and to provide essential motivations for his characters.
Thankfully, no such curses fell on Maestro Brian Salesky, stage director Carroll Freeman, and cast, rather some glorious blessings in both music and staging. The plot's curse does fall, though, on Rigoletto, a hunchbacked jester in the court of the licentious Duke of Mantua, who compensates for his pitiable physical condition with the entertainment of courtiers by taunts and acidic verbal jabs. In this role, Nelson Martinez's Rigoletto was both a dramatic and vocal joy. Martinez's rich, golden baritone was solid and velvety. His character's disfigured ample stature was a perfect dramatic counterpoint to the tenderness he shows toward Gilda, the daughter he is driven to protect, when they are alone. Although there was nothing subtle about the entrance and the casting of the curse by the aggrieved courtier Monterone (sung by the always solid Michael A. Rogers), I would have expected a much bigger visual treatment for Rigoletto to register the shock and realization of the curse.
In what appears to be a real find for Knoxville Opera, Rigoletto's daughter, Gilda, was sung by soprano Talise Trevigne. Her voice was luscious and lyrically smooth, yet with a surprising power and range. The hints of a beautiful coloratura showed themselves in a lovely "Caro nome," in which Gilda sings of her love for the Duke, whom she has been deceived into thinking is a poor student. Unfortunately, the symbol of Gilda's virginal innocence, her white gown, vibrated with excessive radiance, and was perhaps more of a distraction (even unconsciously) than it should have been.
Returning to Knoxville Opera in the role of the Duke was tenor Dinyar Vania. Vania, who was seen previously in KOC productions of Madama Butterfly and La Bohème, brought his usual energy and swagger to the role. He added a touch of the Duke's arrogance and finished with a solid "La donna è mobile." Equally enjoyable was his Act I "Questa o quella," in which the Duke clearly explains his motivations toward women.
Audience members were heard catching their breaths for the amazingly solid, low bass of John Ames in the role of Sparafucile, the assassin hired by Rigoletto to dispatch the Duke. In Act III, the Duke has appeared at an inn, where he attempts to seduce Sparafucile's sister, Maddalena (sung by contralto Carla Dirlikov). In one of the greatest examples of operatic ensemble writing—the quartet "Bella figlia dell'amore,"—Maddalena responds to the Duke's entreaties inside the inn, while Gilda and Rigoletto, standing outside, realize the full extent of the Duke's inconstancy and betrayal. The famous quartet was beautifully staged and performed. But while the quartet can stand by itself musically (and did), its importance in setting up the motivations for the finale's fulfillment of the curse cannot be understated.
That the curse continues is brought home to Rigoletto, when he hears the Duke's distant reprise of "La donna è mobile," indicating that it is not the murdered Duke lying lifeless in Sparafucile's sack, but his daughter Gilda. The curse is fulfilled. These are the magic moments that opera accomplishes so beautifully and that audiences return for again and again.