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Reflection: From 'Rigoletto's' dark welter of decay, contrast offers a path to goodness

Union Avenue Opera's "Rigoletto"
John Lamb | Union Avenue Opera
Union Avenue Opera's "Rigoletto"

Musicologists have had a field day divvying up the operas of the towering Italian genius Giuseppe Verdi. “Rigoletto” -- performed this weekend with artistic muscle and dramatic agility by Union Avenue Opera – is pigeonholed in his middle period, along with  Il trovatore and La traviata.

Yet this opera, one of the most reptilian works in the musical repertory, slithered out from under its middle period rock to establish itself as one of the most powerful, most disturbing and most thoroughgoingly affecting works of art of any period, in any medium.

The Venetian opera house La Fenice commissioned an opera from Verdi in 1850, and the literary foundation of this commission –Victor Hugo’s controversial five-act play Le roi s’amuse – kicked up difficulties with Austrian censors, the moral watchdogs of theaters in the north of Italy in the mid 19th century.

The subject matter of Hugo’s play was a wanton king, based on the French King François I (1494-1547), who was portrayed as a womanizer and a cad. The regal status of the character amusing himself alarmed the censors. “Rigoletto,” with its libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, bumped the character of king down to a mere Italian duke, specifically the Duke of Mantua, and after a time the opera whistled by the censors and onto the stage of La Fenice. "Rigoletto" received its première there in March 1851. It was a major success,and has remained a favorite of operagoers ever since, and a staple of the repertory.

Union Avenue Opera and the talented stage director Tim Ocel took a traditional approach in staging the work, and it is altogether effective. “Rigoletto” is so resilient it gives itself to more contemporary realizations and messing-withs. For example, Jonathan Miller’s 1982 Mafia interpretation for the English National Opera was not only imaginative but appropriate as well -- and actually quite a strong reinforcement of Verdi's and Piave's intentions.

How is it we are drawn to the relentless, grim decadence of “Rigoletto”? This is not some account of comic and innocent dalliances -- there are no barbers or love potion hucksters here. "Rigoletto" is monument. When we approach it and other serious operas that have status on the altar of Art, do we not crave nobility, even shreds of it, and want to leave not only enriched by the visual and auditory blessings but also, especially in triumphant works of art such as the operas of Verdi, are we not entitled to some lessons in rectitude, some signal directing us to the dwelling place of goodness, some combination that opens the lock to redemption?

At first blush, “Rigoletto” does just the opposite, directing us as it were to dark places of the soul that have been scrubbed clean of goodness. A later work of Verdi, “Otello,” is a demonstration of the triumph of evil also, one engineered by the vile Iago, who controls the mad monster Otello like a puppet. But in contrast, rising from the stink of pathological jealousy, are the sweet, gentle and innocent Desdemona and her lady’s maid, Emilia, the wife of the wretch Iago. In them, one who lives, the other one martyred, we find indelible loyalty and goodness – and the hope of salvation.

Not so in “Rigoletto.” Although there may be characters with trace amounts of moral chemicals in their systems dancing around the periphery of “Rigoletto,” no stage magic disguises the varying degrees of depravity presented by the knave Rigoletto (Jordan Shanahan); by his employer, the Duke of Mantua (James Callon); by the walking-talking murder weapon, Sparafucile (Mark Freiman); and his sister, used as bait to draw victims to murder, Maddalena (Kristee Haney).

Even the poor disturbed, lovesick, conflicted Gilda (Lacy Sauter) has a low moral temperature. She spills her nobility on the ground as she sacrifices her life for her lover, the rotten to the core Duke. If there is room for empathy, however, Gilda should be granted it.

Multitudes know La donna e mobile, the take-away tune. But the quartetto  -- “Bella figlia dell’ amore” in Act III, music mighty enough to generate a terrific movie -- is musical apotheosis. Even there, it is no an act of contrition being sung about, but Crime and Punishment, murder and revenge and run-amok lust.

So out of the squalor and tragedy of this dark opera, there is an obvious conclusion to draw, one that allows us to see beyond the reality of Verdi’s version of the Purgatorio in “Rigoletto.” Although we are immersed in evil as it propagates itself on the stage, it should be evident, through comparing and contrasting, that it is not inevitable we shall become, to any degree, a Duke of Mantua or an Iago or a Maddalena. 

Moral guidance is found in contrast. If we compare the gross example of the Duke to those who work in our world for justice with spiritual generosity, or to those who understand the urgency of sacrifice, the lessons come clear. We live in a time of savagery, and great art offers succor, certainly. But always more important than escape is the will to confront the darkness, and art's admonishments can provide either a way of contending with our dilemmas or the prospects of ways to shine light on them and brilliance enough to lead the way out of them. Impossible, you say? Perhaps. But as we look around nothing else is working with any particular efficiency. Individual action and courage just may work, one step taken at a time.

On Union Avenue’s stage the lessons are presented with clarity and grace by stage director Ocel and his colleagues. The orchestra was conducted with energy and dedication by the company’s artistic director, Scott Schoonover.  

Following the show, a member of the cast said something like, “Well, you know, the tenor gets all the good music.” And that’s true. And the tenor in this “Rigoletto,” James Callon, took full advantage of this high-flying bounty. The audience heard him stake his claim and listened to his taking advantage of it, and when the show was done, the bravos began for the new guy when he came running onto the stage to take well-deserved bows. All this happens twice more, on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 7-8, at Union Avenue Opera, 753 Union Blvd. 314-361-2881. www.unionavenueopera.org.