If not for its horrific outcome, "Rigoletto" would make a terrific door-slamming farce.
Virtually every character in the Verdi opera is withholding crucial information from someone else. The womanizing Duke of Mantua doesn't know that his court jester, Rigoletto, has a beautiful daughter he keeps locked up at home. The daughter, Gilda, doesn't know what her father does for a living. Worst of all, Rigoletto doesn't know that, despite his extreme precautions, Gilda already has met and fallen in love with the Duke.
"If it were a sitcom, it would be the basis of comedy everyone overhearing half the story," said tenor Robert McPherson, who plays the Duke in Utah Opera's upcoming production. "Unfortunately, it's a comedy of tragic proportions."
"It's just a perfect storm of bad coincidences," stage director Tara Faircloth said.
The twists in the plot are extreme at times. "But that's why we go to the opera to experience things we wouldn't normally," Faircloth said. Besides, she noted, there's only one scene, in which Rigoletto becomes an unwitting accomplice in his daughter's abduction, that truly defies belief.
"It's really a story of human nature," she said. "How much do we know about each other? People have secrets, even if they're kept for the best of reasons. It's a fact of life."
Baritone Guido LeBrÃ³n, who sings the title role in Utah Opera's "Rigoletto," and Utah soprano Celena Shafer, who plays Gilda, agreed that their characters' actions are extraordinary but only in their scale.
Rigoletto is affected deeply by a curse that is laid on him in the first act of the opera; LeBrÃ³n said he's heard well-educated people express similar apprehensions, even if it's done half-jokingly. As for Gilda's naive view of her relationship with the Duke, "young adults don't always read people right," Shafer said. "Coming out of adolescence, their brains are not fully formed."
Verdi based "Rigoletto" on "Le roi s'amuse," a Victor Hugo play that was banned after one performance because of its scandalous portrayal of nobility behaving badly. It was an immediate hit. "The music speaks for itself," Faircloth said. "Every chord brings us to the proper horrible conclusion."
Conductor Robert Tweten, who will lead the singers and Utah Symphony in this production, called "Rigoletto" one of the top 10 operas in history. It marks an important step forward for Verdi into a style that's driven by the story and characters, rather than conventional opera structure. "You can hear and feel all the bel canto influences [from the prevailing musical style of the day], but it's done in a more progressive way that breaks from traditional forms," Tweten explained.
Indeed, the husband of the original Gilda wrote to Verdi to complain that the soprano had only one real aria, "Caro nome." But what an aria it is. "You hear it hundreds of times at auditions, but not like Celena sings it," the conductor enthused.
The title role is one of the most demanding in opera, said LeBrÃ³n, who noted that playing the hunchbacked jester also has taken a toll on his knees. "This is like my 'Hamlet,' " he said. "I won't play Hamlet or King Lear or those guys, but this is just as good."
It's in the bag
Utah Opera presents Giuseppe Verdi's "Rigoletto." The opera is sung in Italian, with supertitles in English.
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City.
When • Saturday, Jan. 21, 7:30 p.m.; evening performances continue Jan. 23, 25 and 27, with a 2 p.m. matinee Jan. 29.
Tickets • $16 to $75 ($5 more on performance day).
Running time • About 2 1/2 hours, including two intermissions.
In a nutshell • A court jester's efforts to shelter his lovely daughter from his womanizing boss go tragically awry.
Learn more • An online course on "Rigoletto," prepared by Paul Dorgan of the University of Utah School of Music, includes audio and video recordings of the opera and a YouTube guide to the story and music. Click the "learn more" button on the "Rigoletto" page at http://www.utahopera.org. The company also presents free prelude lectures by principal coach Carol Anderson in the theater an hour before curtain, and Q&A sessions with artistic director Christopher McBeth in the mezzanine-level Founders Room immediately after each performance.
O The best-known aria from "Rigoletto" is "La donna Ã¨ mobile," in which the Duke sings about the fickle nature of women. Verdi kept the tune under tight wraps before the opera's premiere; the tenor who first sang the role of the Duke was sworn to secrecy. Sure enough, people were singing "La donna Ã¨ mobile" in the streets of Venice the next morning. Here's a performance by Luciano Pavarotti, with helpful subtitles so you can sing along. • youtube/IjVJ1lIoUBw