‘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.

‘The Barber of Seville’ is a funny, finely produced production of a true classic

When it comes to opera, there will always be certain barriers to entry. One of the major ones is, of course, is our own preconceptions, that operas are so often hyper-serious, stuffy affairs. There are other more serious ones, such as length (most operas do run 3 hours or more), and the language barrier (the best operas are also often in a language other than English). However, as I’ve learned through the past few years, to miss out on an opera for either of these reasons is to miss out on something truly awe-inspiring, and Austin Opera is currently providing a great entry-point, with their absolutely hilarious, beautifully choreographed production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”.

“The Barber of Seville” is a simple story, told beautifully. As the play begins we meet the Count Almaviva, who has become enraptured by the beautiful, young Rosina. Standing in his way, however, is Dr. Bartolo, Guardian of Rosina, who is making plans to marry his ward for her inheritance. Luckily for Almaviva, the titular, well-to-do barber, Figaro, has plans to help the Count out (for a price). What follows is the stuff of high farce, as Almaviva and Figaro come up with numerous plans to whisk Rosina away from her harsh guardian, though their plans always seem to fall apart.

From word one, “Barber of Seville” transports us to the streets of Spain, and much of this is due to the spectacular production design. Whether the streets of the city, to the cushy, well-detailed interiors of the doctor’s chateau, it’s obvious scenic designer Peter Dean Beck has put a lot of thought into making sure that each element of the design helps to give the feel of the period, as well as making each part seem lived-in, authentic. Also helping to make the piece feel more authentic are the gorgeous costumes designed by Susan Memmott Allred. Polished, well-designed, and stunningly detailed, the costumes make a true artistic statement in their own right, without ever feeling gaudy or over-touched. It all comes together to create a cohesive, engaging world in which our characters can weave their wondrous tale.

One surprising element of the play is how strong a character Rosina seems, especially for the period. True, she spends much of her time in the piece waiting to be rescued, but the amount of vim and venom she exhibits is admirable. Indeed, she gives as good as she gets more often than not when confronted by her Guardian, taking her own steps to plan her escape. As we learn later in the play, she’s also a woman well in touch with her sexuality, putting the moves on the disguised count throughout in very hilarious ways, adding in a refreshingly bawdy element that this critic was truly not expecting. Jennifer Rivera’s talent for expression truly makes the character, as she gives a sharp, well-nuanced performance that truly adds interesting dimension to Rosina.

Of course, this opera would be nothing without a powerful actors in the lead role, and luckily, Troy Cook cuts a fine Figaro. He first pops on to the scene with energy and bravado, and doesn’t drop a bit of it as the piece progresses. He’s one of those rare characters that’s never quite in the hero’s camp, but who we can’t help but love, his clever, conniving plans always seeming to blow up in the others’ faces. He also carries out some amazing vocal feats, as he, and the other characters, are often forced to sing overlapping verses, as well as lightning quick vocals, and Cook never skips a beat. It’s a remarkable performance, and one can only hope this amazing actor can grace Austin theaters again sooner, rather than later.

Surprisingly fun, gorgeously designed, and impeccably acted, “The Barber of Seville” is a great starting point for anyone looking to get into opera. Austin Opera continues to get better with every show, and so one can only imagine how good they will become going into their next season. I, for one, will be sure to grab a seat at their next production.

Photo Courtesy of Austin Opera