Subscribe for $3 for three months
'Rigoletto' at Opera Theatre St. Louis

Photo by Eric Woolsey

Roland Wood as the title character in Verdi's "Rigoletto" at Opera Theatre St. Louis. 

Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto” is one of the most popular, most-performed operas in the world, despite an ugly story about (mostly) unpleasant people. Verdi’s powerful, tuneful score keeps it on the Top 10 list, along with drama that’s compelling in the right hands and voices.

“Rigoletto,” which opened Saturday night at the Loretto-Hilton Center, is the second production in Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ 2019 season. It’s been given a strong production, filled with the singers it needs.

Bruno Ravella, in his U.S. directorial debut, has imposed an update from Renaissance Italy to late-19th century Paris; it’s unnecessary, but it’s not damaging to the story or its logic. The hunchbacked jester has become an entertainer; he’s lost his hump but gained a new disfigurement, a large birthmark.

Ravella’s main conceit is Rigoletto’s new prop, a ventriloquist’s dummy; through it, he expresses all the insults and hateful thoughts that the Duke would like to say aloud. When he puts it back in its trunk, Rigoletto becomes a loving father to his sheltered daughter, Gilda.

The gimmick is not entirely successful. The dummy is safely stowed when the Duke’s courtiers, who have come to kidnap Gilda (who they think is Rigoletto’s mistress), talk him into helping them grab another woman, a plot he finds hilarious. Whether by nature or nurture, Rigoletto has an ugly character, lit only by his love for his child.

Baritone Roland Wood doesn’t need gimmicks, in any event. He’s an imposing figure, a superb actor with a remarkable, powerful voice and a stage presence to match. Soprano So Young Park, as the doomed Gilda, has matured vocally since her Zerbinetta in “Ariadne on Naxos” in 2016. Gilda’s problematic in some ways, too (she throws away her life and her father’s hopes, for a sociopathic serial rapist), but Park made us feel her youth and lost innocence and sang gorgeously.

Tenor Joshua Wheeker is a tall, good-looking Duke; what he lacked in charisma, he more than made up for in vocal beauty. Christian Zaremba’s Sparafucile is appropriately evil, a murderer-for-hire concerned about his honor.

As his sister Maddalena, mezzo-soprano Lindsay Ammann displayed a big, rich voice and uncommon agility. Mezzo Rehanna Thelwell sang impressively as Rigoletto’s servant Giovanna. Bass-baritone Nicholas Newton made a big, positive impression as Monterone; no wonder his curse rattles Rigoletto to the core.

OTSL resident conductor and director of music Roberto Kalb has conducted single performances of operas in past seasons. This was the first time that he was completely in charge in the pit, and he proved an inspired choice, demonstrating a superb sense of Verdian style, supporting his singers, leading his instrumentalists, and keeping the music flowing. This split of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra followed Kalb with spirit.

The sets, by Alex Eales, worked exceptionally well, creating a sense of time and place. Mark Bouman’s costumes contributed to that and worked well.

Sarah Bryan Miller is the classical music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; she has also written on a variety of other topics.