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COULROPHOBE’S DELIGHT: Lyric Opera’s ‘Rigoletto’ offers world-class lead

Verdi’s Rigoletto is like a Lifetime Movie Network potboiler, complete with contrived crises, gratuitous violence and a cast of inexplicably mean characters who only occasionally seem like real people. The Lyric Opera’s current production rarely flinches from the work’s unseemly tawdriness, and that is, in some measure, its strength. It leaves us feeling even ickier than we usually do when emerging from this problematic tale. Yet despite some capital individual performances, well-gauged conducting by Ward Holmquist in the pit, and a handsome if overwrought rented set, at the March 24 performance it failed to add up to a winning evening in the theater.

Richard Paul Fink’s portrayal of the title character — a dark and tortured court jester, a 19th-century version of the “scary clown” — is so raw-nerved and wrenching that it does the same thing that a great performance of Wozzeck does: It makes you want to go kill yourself. Fink is one of the world’s great Wagner baritones, and if I hadn’t been so moved by his portrayal I might say that his voice is too big for Rigoletto. It’s certainly too big for the Lyric Theatre. But it is a wonder unto itself: as solid as a tree-trunk, earthy and visceral. It’s like something hewn from stone, yet it’s capable of pathos, resolve, desperation, horror. If his cartoonish jabs and pokes in Act 1 were excessive — and his jester’s costume a tad too red — he completely commanded the stage in his “Cortigiani” scene of Act 2, where he implored, wept, railed and finally demanded the courtiers to allow him access to Gilda. Director Garnett Bruce kept the courtiers’ rebuffs to a fluid minimum, almost as if in slow motion, which made their cruelty feel all the creepier.

Indeed, the stage direction grew more sure as the opera progressed, from the overly circus-like Act 1 (who are these people, and why are they acting so daft?) to the understated Act 2. The grab-you-by-the-shirt final act was arresting both gesturally and visually, with James Sale’s lighting design emphasizing warm tones for the Duke and Maddelena and ghostly “night” blues for Gilda and Rigoletto.

David Pomeroy delivered a focused, controlled portrayal of the philandering Duke, which he played as an impulsive cad utterly unconcerned about his moral decrepitude. His generally solid voice could strike a heroic quality at the top, but it sometimes felt forced, even gravelly. Kevin Short was subtly riveting as the assassin Sparafucile, which he delivered with a golden voice and sinister smiles that were at turns seductive and chilling. Harold Wilson, tall and glowering and with a muscular, dark-chocolate baritone, was a huge presence as Monterone. Benjamin Gulley in the small role of Borsa displayed a shiny, golden tenor in Act 1 that I would love to hear more of.

Mary Dunleavy was suffering from a cold, we were informed before the performance began, but she agreed to perform anyway. She soldiered through gamely, singing Gilda in reduced voice through Act 1 and producing enough sound in “Caro nome” to remind us of the comeliness of her affecting soprano. She had fully inhabited the role by Act 2, but the voice kept shrinking by the minute; by Act 3 it was reduced to whispers and murmurs, which made for some weird gaps in the essential ensemble-singing. In the quartet, Fink scaled down to match Dunleavy’s level, while the Duke and Maddelena (Catherine Ratliff), stage right, sang full-tilt and virtually drowned them out.

The Lyric has repeatedly said it cannot afford to hire “cover singers” for such occasions, and it’s true that this is not a common practice among smaller opera companies. Yet this issue has caused untold gnashing of teeth over the years, both for the company and for its audiences. In the end I couldn’t escape the feeling that we didn’t get the performance we’d paid for on Wednesday — through no fault of poor, plucky Mary Dunleavy. The Lyric has experienced much artistic growth in recent years, and in many respects is starting to look like a superlative regional American company. Perhaps the time has come in which it can no longer afford not to hire cover singers. One can’t help wondering, for example, whether an enhanced version of the Lyric apprentice program could be used as a cost-effective means of both providing last-minute replacements and opening up opportunities for apprentices to learn roles they hope to be singing some day anyway.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.

 

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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