There are three things people of Italian-American descent grow up with: meatballs, tomato suce, and opera. These often came together for me, growing up back East. Sunday dinner often included all three. If not a whole opera, an album of favorites by Pavoratti, Maria Callas, or selections by Verdi or Puccini. These were played almost religiously after Sunday Mass, in the background, while pasta was served.
I was familiar with two of the arias from the current production of “Rigoletto,” now on stage at the Keller Auditorium. “La donne e mobile,” which loosely translates into “Women Are Fickle,” and “Caro nome,” or “Dearest Name.” Both pieces, in the hands of Barry Banks as the Duke of Mantua, and Katrina Galka as Gilda, were truly stunning renditions worthy of the Metropolitan or La Scala.
Opera, like Shakespeare, is easily adaptable to new interpretations. I’ve seen “La boheme” transported to the Jazz Age. If you’ve not seen the “Twelfth Night” film with Helena Bonham Carter set in Edwardian England, you must. “Rigoletto,” in this production, does not stray from the time and place imagined by Verdi--as befitting a grand opera.
"Rigoletto" must do quite well for himself. He has his own home, and even has a nursemaid named Giovanna (played by Kate Farrar) for his young daughter, Gilda. However, much like the nurse in “Romeo and Juliet” Giovanna steers away from her employer’s advice about raising his child. What is an opera without a love story?
There are twists and turns. There’s of course, a curse, delivered by Counte Monterone (played by Reginald Smith, Jr.) who like Riggoletto has a daughter to protect. Such witchcraft is what you’d expect and deserve in a grand opera. There’s a killer for hire, Sparafucile (masterfully played by Scott Conor) and his accomplice sister Maddalena (Hannah Penn.) A little bit of disguise, trickery, and even gender-bending to some extent inform the plot, based on the play Le roi s'amuse by Victor Hugo..
You can interpret the opera’s storyline from an LGBT perspective: Rigoletto is “different.” He suffers from having a deformity, in the context of the play he is described as a hunchback. He performs as a jester in the court of Duke of Mantua, (Barry Banks.) While it is politically incorrect today to describe his daughter as his prize possession, Gilda is really all he has. Also, in 16th C. Italy it is his duty to protect his daughter, especially because his very livelihood puts him in a theatrical subculture open to marginalization and attack.
One could suggest Gilda symbolizes his dignity as a person, a father, and a man who makes a living in a profession without dignity. He and Gilda are all alone in the world, as his wife died many years before. Much like queer people are used to being marginalized for being different, who often experience identity or sexuality “taken away” from them, it’s his daughter who is taken from him.
The music is of course everything you’d want a grand opera with world-class opera singers to be, stunning, nuanced, with ribald humor coming through a language with which many viewers may not understand. The costumes recall portraits of Early Renaissance Italian nobility found in the Uffizi in Florence. But, Portland being Portland, my guest and I--a local friend who is also of Italian-American descent--noticed something. The view of Mantua, the fabled Italian city where the opera takes place, seems to have a notable “Easter egg” hidden in a background inspired by etchings of Renaissance cityscapes. On the far right, there’s a rendering of Mount Hood above Mantua.
For the production team and performers of “Rigoletto,” Italy is never far from their minds or hearts. I concur. Bravo, e grazie for such a lush production. The next time I make Sunday tomato sauce and meatballs, I know what I’ll be listening to as I cook.
Tickets are still available, at the time of publication. Visit Portland Opera for tickets and showtimes.