‘Rigoletto’ is a gorgeously-wrought, emotionally devastating take on an opera mainstay

Though I consider myself well-informed in most pieces of the theatre world, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still a novice when it comes to opera. Though I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen, and I know many of the composers and their work, for most productions I have the pleasure of seeing from Austin Opera, I’m coming in practically blind. I was, therefore, not prepared for the emotional napalm that is Verdi’s “Rigoletto”, the wrenching tale of a tortured clown, whose life falls apart after a father’s curse. Polished and beautifully produced, Austin Opera have crafted a gorgeously built emotional roller coaster, that’s sure to leave you with a lump in your throat as the final piercing notes play.

As the curtains open on Austin Opera’s latest production of Verdi’s classic, we’re presented with one of the most draw-droppingly beautiful tableaus I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in some time, with Chad R. Jung’s gorgeous lighting and the beautiful costuming of Susan Memmott Allred coming together in dazzling, earthy tones reminiscent of the Dutch masters. Indeed, if it wasn’t the subsequent action, one could be forgiven for thinking they were taking in a Rembrandt. This beautiful aesthetic carries through most of Austin Opera’s latest, with the impeccable sets and costumes giving the ambiance a luxe, expensive feel that helps immerse us into the court of the period, creating a tangible world, which in turn makes the emotional journey we’re about embark upon take on that much more power.

Michael Chioldi has been a mainstay on the Long Center boards in numerous productions, but I believe this may be the role for which he’s remembered. The titular role of Rigoletto is not an easy one to pull off, as in many ways the horrific events that unfold upon him are of his own doing, and even in his darkest moments there’s a thought that, had he gone forward with a little more foresight, or a little more concern, all of the bloodshed might have been avoided. There’s also a sense of foolishness to the character which would hurt the sympathy in the hands of a lesser actor, but luckily Chioldi is able to carry these many elements on his talented shoulders, giving us a glimmering, multifaceted performance that tugs on our heartstrings despite his character’s questionable actions.

Rigoletto may skirt the line between sympathetic and villainous, but the Duke dances all over it. The character is, of course, the antagonist of the piece, but there’s an earnestness to his actions that one can’t help but appreciate. It certainly complicates things that Kang Wang is such a charismatic presence, and one can see why so many women would be pining after him. For his part, Wang is able to carry a difficult dychotomy with gusto, creating some of the best moments of the production with his cunning and charm.

One mustn’t forget the real rising star of the piece, Madison Leonard, whose effervescent, adorable performance as Gilda practically busts off the stage with youthful exuberance. Her moments of gaiety are lovely moments of respite from the emotional devastation that makes us so much of Rigoletto’s running time, and nearly every time she’s on stage you can’t help but crack smile (at least, until that last act comes along). She shows such a devotion to her role, and has the gorgeous, clear voice to match, that one can only imagine a long, storied career from her in the years to come. One hopes she finds her way back to the Austin stage sooner rather the later.

Opera is, other than perhaps dance, the most concentrated presentation of human emotion the arts has to offer, and “Rigoletto” is a testament to this fact. It’s nearly thee hours of emotional warfare, with Verdi’s gorgeous music underscoring one of the most heartbreaking stories in canon, and Austin Opera’s talented team has provided a polished, poignant presentation of this crushing classic. Though it may be a tough sit for those not used to the tempo of Verdi’s work, fans of the medium will find joys aplenty in Austin Opera’s latest work.

The final presention of Austin Opera’s “Rigoletto” is playing Sunday, November 11th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit austinopera.org.

Photos courtesy of Austin opera.

Capital T’s ‘It Is Magic’ is a harrowing, hilarious journey into the eldritch heart of the theatrical experience

Often, when I’m watching a play of a particular quality, it feels as if I’m watching something miraculous. That somehow all of these disparate elements can come together to create such moments of wonder, there must be some curious alchemy at work. So as I sit, watching Capital T’s newest, their latest collaboration with writer Mickle Maher, a mystical work called “It Is Magic”, I can’t help but sneak a grin. This hilarious, surprisingly harrowing tale of the troubled production of an all-adult version of “The Three Pigs”, shows the true sorcery at the heart of the theatre.  A talented cast and a skilled production team, all under the deft hands of director Mark Pickell, come together to create a night of theatre that must be seen to be believed.

 The play begins in a very inauspicious locale, the basement of a community theatre somewhere in the Midwest. Here, we follow director Deb and her sister, struggling actress Sandy, as they attempt to find the perfect lead for their adult version of “The Three Pigs”, as a production of Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play” debuts upstairs. When a strange woman appears for her audition, things explode in a glorious, mythology-fueled way that takes the play in a bold, unique, and absolutely insane direction. By the time the play reaches it end, we’ll find fire, blood, and a sense of dark wonder that the audience would have never seen coming from the play’s simple beginning.

Casting Katherine Catmull and Rebecca Robinson as sisters is such inspired casting that one wonders why directors haven’t been doing it for years. Watching these two celebrated actresses work together is one of the true highlights of the play, their chemistry jaw-dropping. Catmull’s stolid passion plays perfectly against Robinson’s more free-spirited Sandy, and once the manic energy of Jill Blackwood is thrown into the mix, the entire theatre becomes electric. The three together create an acting masterclass, with each playing off the other with gusto to create moments of pure theatrical enchantment. These three, working together, create such an enthralling atmosphere that they become the most interesting thing in the room, and once the play reaches it’s end, you’d give anything just to spend another moment in their presence.

With performances as powerful as those three, it would be a task for even the most seasoned actor to match them, which is what makes John Christopher’s performance as Tim so impressive. The actor is quickly becoming one of the empathetic performers in Austin theatre, and here he uses this ability to add a touch of softness to what can come across as a hard, cynical production for most of its running time. Whether he’s running his ludicrous lines for his Big Bad Wolf auditions, or dripping with the blood of a theatre critic, he tackles his role with a refreshing earnestness that helps you sympathize with his plight. Some of the play’s funniest moments stem from how his touching sincerity meshes with the sometimes outrageous events happening on stage, acting as an Everyman to the wildness whirling all around him.

And then there’s Robert Pierson. After his decimating performance in “The Strangerer”, it’s obvious that Pierson is a perfect fit for the work of Mickle Maher, and he uses his manic energy perfectly in his performance as charismatic artistic director, and perhaps eldritch horror, Ken. Here, Pierson uses this energy to imbue Ken with a sense of effortless charm, which as the play goes on he starts to weaponize to hypnotize, and even manipulate the audience. The things we see him do on stage can be verge on pure evil, and its a testament to his talents that the audience follows his on his journey, even to its final, fiery end. “It Is Magic” goes to some bizarre places, even for a Maher play, so its to Pierson’s credit (and to the credit of the rest of this expert cast), that the play remains, if not believable, never less than enthralling.

“It Is Magic” may seem like a clever, attention-grabbing title, but as you leave the theatre, vapor still on your breath, eyes dazzled by the flashing lights of Patrick Anthony’s clever lighting design, you’ll find it’s a simple truth. What we see on stage is nothing short of witchcraft, the performers bringing forth something awe-inspiring, something primal, something abyssal. Our shared experience can only be explained by a simple phrase: It. Is. Magic.

“It Is Magic” is playing at the Hyde Park Theatre through November 23rd. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit capitalttheatre.org.

Image courtesy of Capital T Theatre.