When Verdi was hired to write a new work for the 1850-'51 season of Venice's La Fenice theater, he decided to turn Victor Hugo's play The King's Amusements into an opera. It was nearly banned before it was written. The problem was, the play showed the king as a degenerate skirt chaser whose life revolved around bedding the wives, mistresses and daughters of everyone over whom his position gave him authority. The depiction of the deep corruption of power didn't amuse the local authorities. By the time a compromise with the royal censors was worked out, Verdi had 40 days to write an opera.
The compromise reduced Hugo's debauched king to a minor (but still morally challenged) duke. Rigoletto, a deformed court jester, has a job working for the duke, luring the wives of various members of the court into the big guy's boudoir. One of the cuckolded courtiers puts a curse on Rigoletto. As in all Italian operas, the curse inevitably leads to disaster. In this case, the duke has his eye on Rigoletto's virgin daughter, Gilda. Rigoletto discovers this, and in an attempt to save her from the duke's depraved mitts, hires Sparafucile, a local hit man, to whack the boss. But the duke seduces Sparafucile's prostitute sister, who falls in love with the duke and convinces Sparafucile to spare him. Through a curse-inspired mixup, Gilda dies in the duke's stead.
The Opera Theater of Saint Louis production, which opens the company's 30th season, plays to Rigoletto's musical strengths. Because it was written so quickly, the score is very straightforward. Verdi tells the story in bold, unambiguous melodies. The love songs are bright and frothy; the dramatic arias dark and tragic. OTSL's orchestra of Saint Louis Symphony vets, under the baton of Richard Buckley, turn in a firm, crisp, melodious performance that leaves the singers plenty of room to shape their characterizations. John Culbert's sparse stage set and Mark McCullough's austere lighting are as basic and forthright as the music.
Chen-Ye Yuan, whose portrayal of Chou En-lai was the highlight of last season's Nixon in China, brings the same combination of control and subtle power to his depiction of Rigoletto. He plays the hunchback as an angry and frustrated man living in two incompatible worlds, neither of which he can control. He's a freak and tool of the cruel duke by day and the loving father of a moonstruck schoolgirl by night. Yuan's duets with Ying Huang, who plays Gilda, are spectacular and worth the price of admission. Their voices entwine in beautifully reciprocated support.
One of the best things about OTSL operas is that they are performed in English. Kicking down the language barrier allows the actors to make dramatic contact with the audience. But sometimes translation can lead to problems. The night I saw the show, Ms. Huang (whom OTSL regulars will remember for her strong and nuanced turn as Pamina in 2002's Magic Flute) and John Bellemer, who plays the duke, took a while to get warmed up. Part of their problem is Andrew Porter's translation. Song translation has to naturally meld the meter of the words to the duration of the notes, which ain't easy. This translation is awkward at some points. Bellemer's warm tenor is just right for the shallow and flippant duke, but he had trouble projecting any intensity or vocal power in the first act, where the libretto is particularly clunky. It's a difficulty that shows up from time to time throughout the first two acts.
Fortunately, the clumsy language disappears at the same time Sparafucile (Morris DeRhon Robinson) and his hooker sister, Maddalena (Nicole Piccolomini), show up. No such glitches mar the spectacularly sung duets and quartets in acts Two and Three. The third act surges powerfully toward Rigoletto's horrifying discovery that the body Sparafucile has delivered to be thrown in the river is none other than his beloved Gilda.
If you go, you owe it to yourself to catch the preview lecture given by rehearsal pianist Miah Im. She eschews the usual dry chat from a lectern and instead plays the show's themes on piano and sings all the parts in a delightful and educational tour de force.