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This summer I will direct Cunning Little Vixen, Dead Man Walking, and Act 1 from Die Walküre.

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Classical Voice of North Carolina: Asheville Lyric Opera Presents a Strong Rigoletto with Davis, Douglass and Cheney in Lead Roles

by Ted McIrvine

March 28, 2009 Asheville, NC: Have you heard the story about the man who exited a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and announced: “What’s so great about William Shakespeare? His plays are just one old familiar quotation after another.” After the Asheville Lyric Opera’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Diana Wortham Theatre, I had a similar thought: “What’s so great about Guiseppe Verdi? His operas are just one old familiar tune after another.”

Rigoletto provides fine arias interspersed with equally fine duets, trios, choral scenes and a justifiably famous quartet. In Act 1, we hear Gilda and the Duke in the “Signor ne principe...Io lo vorrei” scene followed soon by Gilda’s “Caro Nome.” In Act 2, the Duke’s “Possente amor mi chiama” (with a tableau of courtiers providing a chorus) and Rigoletto’s agonized “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” is followed by the concluding duet of Rigoletto and Gilda discussing revenge in “Si, vendetta, tremenda vendetta.” Near the beginning of Act 3, we hear the Duke’s “La Donna è mobile” for the first time, then Sparafucile and Maddalena sing inside their house while Rigoletto and Gilda argue in the street to create the quartet “Un di, se ben rammentomi.” Piled upon this are the “Ah più non ragiono” storm scene, a reprise of “La Donna è mobile” and then the final duet “Chi è mai in sua vece?” between the horrified Rigoletto and his dying daughter Gilda.

This opera is a perennial favorite despite its melodrama. As David Carl Toulson forthrightly states in his program notes, “It is a love story, a morality play, and a tragedy all rolled into one.” I would call that a case of a librettist who couldn’t make up his mind, but who cares when the music is written by a genius?

The cast for this production was headlined by baritone Mark Owen Davis as Rigoletto, coloratura soprano Emily Douglass as his beloved daughter Gilda and tenor Brian Cheney as the Duke. They were all pleasing.

Mr. Davis, who has specialized in Verdi roles in recent years, won over the audience with his stage acting as well as his assured singing. Rigoletto has a lot of emoting to do in this opera, but Davis could afford to be a little restrained in his sobs and in the catch in his voice, for his physical acting was conveying the strength of his love for his daughter and his desire for vengeance on her abductor. With the emotion expressed in this physical way, he cleared the decks for consistent beautiful singing.

Ms. Douglass also showed acting ability, primarily in body language. When Rigoletto was swearing vengeance and she was urging forgiveness, her gentleness and conflicting loves for father and young suitor were convincing. Earlier in Act 2, she managed to portray extreme agitation without upstaging the baritone’s aria “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata.” Her “Caro nome” was the highlight solo moment of the production.

Mr. Cheney credits the late Jerry Hadley (who died prematurely in 2007) as his mentor. Hadley had broad interests and it appears that Cheney does also, so we look forward to future appearances whether they be operatic or in musical theater. Cheney’s portrayal of the Duke gave a greater depth to this unabashed libertine’s character than I am used to seeing. In his interaction with the courtiers and with Gilda, we saw his redeeming human qualities that made Gilda’s sacrifice plausible. Cheney’s high point was in the quartet “Un di, se ben rammentomi,” appropriate since interaction is one of his strong suits.

The Asheville Lyric Opera was judicious in filling the supporting roles. Special mention should go to Brian Banion (the assassin Sparafucile), Élise DesChamps (Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena) and Dominic Aquilino (Count Monterone), but there were no weak links in the cast.

The guest conductor Timothy Myers kept the musical resources well coordinated without ever appearing obtrusive. I worried for a few seconds when the trumpet entry was remarkably flat in the Prelude to Act One. Upon reflection, I reassured myself that there were few places in the score of “Rigoletto” where the trumpet was exposed. (It was a good thing the opera was not Aida with the “Triumphal March.”) The guest stage director David Carl Toulson is to be commended for using a minimal set in a convincing manner, and for bringing dramatic verity to this staging.