Subscribe for 99¢

This season, Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents two standard-repertoire operas, Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” and Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”

This production of “Rigoletto,” however, is not standard: Instead of the original setting of Mantua, Italy, in the 16th century, director Bruno Ravella has put it in the Paris of the 1870s.

To say that Ravella is cosmopolitan is to be guilty of understatement: He was born in Casablanca to Italian and Polish parents, educated primarily in France, and is based in London. He’s worked in the United States as an assistant director at houses including Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Met; this is his American directorial debut.

Ravella has staged several Verdi operas: “La Traviata,” “Macbeth” and “Falstaff.” This is his first “Rigoletto.”

“The piece is very, very dark,” he says, referring to it as “Rigoletto’s nightmare.”

“Everybody thinks they know ‘Rigoletto,’ so it’s a tricky one,” Ravella says. He started by reading the original play, Victor Hugo’s “Le roi s’amuse (The King Amuses Himself),” given one performance in 1832 before being banned by government censors, to get a sense of the period, Hugo’s reasons for writing it and his interest in the characters.

“Having started reading it in French,” he says, “I found there were a lot of things in there that resonated in the world of Victor Hugo.” That inspired him to move it to the France of the 1870s and ’80s and the early years of Parisian cabaret.

The first scene of the opera opens with the Duke’s ball; Count Monterone, father of one of the Duke’s victims, “refers to an orgy taking place. This is not something we can put onstage, but I wanted to show the vices of the period: gambling, prostitution, opium. It’s what is happening out of sight, in the underbelly of the city.”

Rigoletto doesn’t really have much of a relationship in the opera with the Duke; they interact briefly in the first scene, and that’s it.

“I’ve created a relationship between the Duke and Rigoletto, in order to develop the piece,” Ravella says. “Rigoletto is somebody that the Duke enjoys having by his side, somebody who will say whatever the Duke wants him to say in order to protect him. It enables the Duke to stay clean, to an extent.”

Baritone Roland Wood is singing the role of Rigoletto for the third time. He describes the character as a working father who’s trying to get by.

“He’s trying make a living and provide for his daughter as a single parent,” Wood says. “Because of the nature of his physical deformity — he’s constantly referred to as a hunchback — he can only do certain things, which he hates, and which he hates himself for having to do. He does it because he loves his daughter.”

When preparing the role, he compared Rigoletto to comedians who delight in being cruel and nasty.

“It’s accepted that everyone else is in on the joke; if you’re the butt of the joke, it’s incredibly painful, but you have to laugh along, because you know that at some point, it will be someone else’s turn. (Rigoletto) has to be cruel for the Duke, to keep him at his side. It’s his defense mechanism.”

Wood thinks the character “grows to enjoy it in some perverse way. He thinks it’s quite fun to be able to thumb his nose at the great and good of society, with complete impunity, provided it still makes them laugh. If he stops making people laugh, he knows that’s it; his time’s up.”

Most of the characters in the opera, whether privileged or lower class, transfer comfortably enough to the new era. But what about Rigoletto himself, the court jester? Ravella came up with a concept that, Wood says, makes perfect sense: Rigoletto becomes a performer — a ventriloquist who speaks through a dummy.

“If you take the jester out of the court, who is he? He’s still a kind of hanger-on to the rich and powerful,” Wood says. “The ventriloquist’s dummy is his outlet; (Rigoletto) is acting as the Duke’s mouthpiece but is removed from everything he says. When he’s being rude and crude and taunting, it’s all through the dummy. Then he’s able to put the dummy away and say, ‘Right, that’s not me anymore; now I’m the loving and caring father.’ It establishes the slightly schizophrenic nature of the character.”

Wood adds: “I’m still playing with it; I haven’t quite mastered the art of singing my aria with my mouth closed yet. It’s something to work on in the next week or so.”

The arc of the story, he says, is “horribly tragic. It’s a classic morality tale, but slightly skewed, in that the person who behaves in an immoral way gets off scot-free. Gilda is punished, and Rigoletto is caught in the middle of it, the schemer punished for scheming, but ultimately being punished for trying to protect his family and being a loving father. Rigoletto has done everything he possibly could to protect Gilda, but she still falls prey to the very powerful man and willingly gives herself up.

“It’s far more tragic than if Rigoletto were killed at the end. It’s a kind of closure, but it’s much more interesting that the Duke survives, and that Rigoletto is left with absolutely nothing, having had only one thing in life.”

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