Painted Sky Opera 2018 Review: Rigoletto

Jessica Jones’ Complex Gilda Dominates In Powerful Interpretation of Verdi’s Middle-Period Masterwork

By Freddy Dominguez

Oklahoma City’s Painted Sky Opera opened its third season with a run of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and if the matinee I saw is any indication, the company is undoubtedly a vital addition to the regional opera scene. A group of talented young singers did Verdi’s chestnut justice and brought an eager audience to its feet.

This production takes place in an unspecified modernity where courtiers dress in flashy party wear inspired by “The Hunger Games.” The set was a simple evocation of a futurist dystopia inspired by Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” Though the contrast of colorful costumes and bare sets provided a nice visual pop, there were a couple of distracting elements. The flash of “Metropolis”- related images on screens during the prelude – were more distracting than enlightening, especially because they pulsed at a rhythm out of synch with the music. This production also did away with the split set that traditionally frames Act three and that was so dear to both Verdi and his source for the opera, Victor Hugo. Here, the action takes place in a sleazy tavern with Rigoletto and his daughter Gilda sharing the same space with her two-timing lover, the Duke, and his new-found prize, Maddalena. It seems unlikely that these four would not have noticed each other in a small bar and, more importantly, I could not see any advantage of getting rid of the walls (physical/symbolic) separating Rigoletto from the Duke as conceived by the work’s creators.

Overall, most of this production’s conceits were neither misguided nor essential to an experience that was carried by force of the singers’ interpretation and the psychological nuances they exposed.

A Sympathetic Duke

Verdi thought that the rakish Duke of Mantua was the central villain of the opera. That is up for debate. Victor Hugo imagined Triboulet, the template for Verdi’s deformed jester, as the main culprit.  In this production, J. Warren Mitchell’s Duke is undoubtedly a cad, but he doesn’t have a malicious edge. He is most enticing in moments of tenderness and heroism and less convincing at important points when the character’s “true” nature peaks through. His beautiful Act two aria “Ella mi fu rapita” sounds like an honest testament of love’s first stirring, while “Questa o quella” and “La donna è mobile” lacked requisite nonchalance.  

This disparity had to do with aspects of Mitchell’s voice. His tone is most accomplished above the staff where he can trumpet notes and make extraordinary throbbing sounds hearkening back to a golden age when gods like di Stefano still roamed. I would have wanted to hear what he did with “Addio, addio, speranza ed anima,” which was cut from this production. He can also spin some soft, caressing phrases. On the whole, though, the middle register could be unfocused, sometimes marked by an unstable vibrato.  I suspect this tonal ambiguity affected his ability to land solidly on consonants. Crisper diction and a little more jaunt in the Duke’s carefree moments would have been a welcome balance to the romantic tone of his portrayal.

Still, Mitchell’s charm was effective.  Some of those juicy tenor sounds and a winning smile ensnared much of the audience.  This had an unexpected chilling effect. At a key moment when Rigoletto hears the Duke singing bits of “La donna è mobile” and realizes that his nemesis is not dead as arranged with a hired assassin, the audience laughed!  The reaction did seem disturbing, but appropriate because the audience had been given a choice between two male leads and they went with the lover over the bitter humpback.

A Vigorous Rigoletto

The audience’s laughter may have been a testament to Daniel Scofield’s electrifying Rigoletto. His is not a sputtering, old, deformed jester.  He might be a clown, but of the kind that gives little children nightmares. He is disturbing in part because of the subtle portrayal of Rigoletto’s deformity. There is only a gesture of a hump and a slightly more prominent limp. Aside from this, Rigoletto often seemed robust and even young. Scofield makes it seem as though being on the edge of normalcy makes him far more conscious of himself as an outsider and that much more intent on preserving his honor.  

Rigoletto does not grovel. Even when he asks the courtier, Marullo, to pity him, he does not bend or bow but stands face to face with his superior.  Scofield does not alternate his singing between father and clown, between victim and villain. His Rigoletto consistently explores some version of anger, but never at the expense of presumed dignity. Scofield allowed the occasional grunt, but usually at the end of a phrase so that it did not interfere with vocal clarity.  His voice is richly shaded. In its darker moments, it reminded me of Renato Bruson. He stretched some phrases slowly and thickly, like pulling apart tar.   

While Verdi sympathized with Rigoletto, this performance suggests a more sinister character. The successful, believable, disturbing villainy of Scofield’s interpretation made Mitchell’s Duke that much more likable.

A Complicated Gilda

Gilda is the victim of this opera, but Jessica Jones plays her like a heroine. Jones’ Gilda explores the contrasts in Verdi’s score: tweeting coloratura and angelic tones of youthful love and more dramatic stretches at moments of inner longing. Her tone is most lush when Gilda is alone, exploring realms of infatuation (a masterful “Caro nome”) or contemplating her own demise. Her phrasing was more formulaic, her tone more metallic when she played the good daughter, and even when she shared the stage with the Duke. This public coldness and inner heat was also shown by Jones’ body language — she alternated between a rigid stance (arms mostly on her side) and a more relaxed, slinky pose when by herself or involved in something truly transgressive (in the afterglow of sleeping with the Duke or contemplating her own imminent death).

Jones’ performance epitomized sophistication and control. She possesses a fully integrated voice from top to bottom with equal parts warmth and fortified steel. Florid passages were executed with gusto and apparent ease. Top notes never failed to thrill, but always stayed on the right side of taste.  This is a voice that merits more exposure on the national and international scene.

The leads were generally well-supported by an effectively paced orchestra (led by Jan McDaniel) and an solid secondary cast. Jonathan Moots as Sparafucile reveled in low-notes as a nasty killer should. Sarah Saturnino, as his sister and accomplice, was a scene-stealer. Showing a lot of leg, moving silkily on stage, and making velvety sounds, she made Maddalena out to be a suave seductress.   

Rigoletto and #Metoo

In a final duet between Rigoletto and his dying daughter, Gilda promises to pray for Rigoletto in heaven.  He’ll need it. Despite the lingering notion that Rigoletto is both a smarmy court creature and a loving father, this production (perhaps unwittingly) exposes that farce. Given nineteenth-century sensibilities, Verdi surely envisioned a sympathetic audience, but in an age that is less (openly) acceptant of patriarchy, it is hard to see past the fact that Gilda was imprisoned by a father mired in his insecurities and hatreds. Rigoletto’s courtly sins followed him home. Though audiences and Verdi himself, by means of mirthful music, might give the Duke a pass for his peccadilloes, he is the embodiment of lustful, willful tyranny. The only light here is the hope that Gilda found some peace in her death. She is a woman who recognized that there were few options left for her on earth. There were many high points of this performance, but none as powerful as Gilda’s ability to express a woman in full despite her oppressors.  

I hope electric, thoughtful performances such as this one encourage audiences to contemplate the consequences of unfettered patriarchy and toxic masculinity.    


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