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GET THEE TO A NUNNERY: Lyric Opera of KC presents star-studded production of Verdi’s tragic ‘Rigoletto’

Verdi’s Rigoletto rings true because, like much great art, it deals in subject matter that most of us can relate to. A loving father smothers his teenage daughter with overprotective zeal, and the sheltered girl falls for the first guy who gives her the time of day. (The guy, naturally, turns out to be a jerk.) Old story? Internationally renowned baritone Richard Paul Fink, who sings the title role in the Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s production opening March 20, says he feels for his character — who goes so far as to put his daughter in a convent — despite his extreme measures. “As the father of three daughters, including a 17-year-old I’d like to lock up in a convent myself, I can understand that desire to protect a daughter,” he said recently on the phone, with a laugh.

 As most parents eventually learn, though, overprotection has its drawbacks: Granted, the consequences are not usually as grave as in Verdi’s harrowing tragedy. (I’ll try not to give away the ending!) One of the hardest things is knowing how far to let your child explore, and how safe those explorations are. Soprano Mary Dunleavy, who sings the challenging role of Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda, also finds herself experiencing that struggle firsthand with her young daughter. “Everything I worry about now is her safety, her happiness, her health,” said the Metropolitan Opera star, who dazzled Lyric audiences last season for her portrayal of Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata. “She’s 17 months old now: She’s starting to climb. And part of me wants her not even to attempt it, and the other part of me wants to let her take those steps and see how it turns out.”

A disfigured hunchbacked “anti-hero” who, by all reports, is not much to look at, Verdi’s famous court jester has lost the only woman who ever loved him, Gilda’s mother, and is desperate at the prospect of losing his daughter, too. Alas, his very determination to keep Gilda safe, and his obsession with revenge when he fails, becomes the impetus for family collapse. “He’s a tragic figure, in that he’s not allowed to see his own shortcomings, he’s not allowed to trust his own feelings,” says stage directorGarnett Bruce, a Lyric regular famous for his special touch with small, intimate moments. “And later he comes to grief again; he’s not able to get past this vengeance.” Gilda, for her part, can hardly be blamed for loving the dashing Duke. “Gilda is very hungry for human contact, for intimacy,” Mary says, “and she’s realizing that this is lacking in her life. … When the Duke comes along she gets carried away. It’s brand-new and exciting for her. She’s naïve and ignorant of the world at large, guileless and capable of being manipulated.”

Playing this father-daughter bond correctly is the key to any production of Rigoletto, Garnett says. The title character is one of Verdi’s most complex — deeply troubled, filled with a taste for vengeance when the Duke disgraces his daughter — and one of his most satisfying when played well. “But I find that if the Rigoletto becomes too self-involved, if you do not see his connection to humanity, then the piece falls apart,” Garnett says.

The opera was a breakthrough for Verdi in many ways, as one of the first operas to deal in the detailed subtlety of character found in his later operas. “In this and in La traviata he realized he had to write with his heart, and not just with his mind,” Garnett says. “So you see the personal element being worked out in the music.” Mature Verdi is filled with “people who are wrestling with their demons,” he adds. “That depth of psychology was what made this opera revolutionary, and what made a connection with the audience at the time.”

Musically, too, Rigoletto was a watershed, says Lyric artistic director Ward Holmquist, who conducts the production. “So much of this score has that fine Verdi melodic and dramatic writing, and shows off what the voice can do in dramatic service. But it seems to me that especially in the final act Verdi has taken a large jump forward in the way he sets the drama. There is so much of a departure from what had gone before, so much a fragmentation of the orchestra, a separation of colors to suggest the dramatic unfolding.” The Lyric’s cast, which also includes tenor David Pomeroy as the Duke, is a highly auspicious one. “It is a cast entirely of performers who have the Metropolitan Opera in their roster,” Ward says. “We are moving as a company in the direction of that level of talent for our entire season. One of our goals as a company is to represent not just young American artists launching their careers, but also established artists who have chosen to include Kansas City as part of their performance roster.”

THE SHOW: The Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s Rigoletto, with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, runs March 20th through the 28th at the Lyric Theatre. Sung in Italian with English supertitles, it also features Kevin Short as Sparafucile, Catherine Ratliff as Maddelena, and Harold Wilson as Count Monterone. For tickets and information go to kcopera.org or call 816-471-7344.

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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