Heart-breaking “Rigoletto” at Lyric Opera

Quinn Kelsey Matthew Polenzani Rigoletto

Classical Music Critic

What: “Rigoletto”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Nov. 3
Tickets: Lyricopera.org

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s opening night performance of “Rigoletto” gave the audience something to cheer about — many times over. But first among the reasons to applaud this production (first seen in San Francisco) is the Lyric debut of soprano Rosa Feola as Gilda.

Court jester Rigoletto finds laughs in mocking others, so that his hatred of humanity is cast back at himself in scorn from those he mocks. His only comfort is his daughter Gilda. Rigoletto does all in his power to keep her away from the world, but in allowing her to attend church, she meets and falls in love with her father’s boss, the Duke of Mantua, a callous womanizer. The young woman cannot help loving him and makes the ultimate sacrifice for her undeserving lover, leaving Rigoletto bereft and utterly alone.

Feola’s outing as Gilda is phenomenal. She conveys innocence and youthful earnestness with ease. She creates a young woman who is lovably sweet and she sings with the same sweetness. Her top notes are luscious and her phrasing blooms beautifully. It is a difficult task to convince an audience that such a horribly betrayed maiden could give her life to save her abuser, but Feola makes this fateful decision believable and therefore all the more tragic.

Tenor Matthew Polenzani is equally compelling as the Duke. His singing contains all the charm needed to convince you that he could dupe an innocent young thing. He swaggers with aristocratic bearing and gives a supple, penetrating voice to the Duke. His singing, always flexible and forceful, is a joy throughout.

Baritone Quinn Kelsey is one of the more recent successful alums of Lyric’s Ryan Center and he has developed fine acting skills. His voice is not as pretty as it is powerful, and while he makes a credible jester he isn’t as convincing as a loving father. Nonetheless, he understands the tragedy of the story and draws clearly Rigoletto’s arrogance and anguish.

Bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk is an interesting Sparafucile, the assassin who believes in satisfying his customers, but doesn’t have either the darkness or the projection in the low notes that this role requires. Zanda Svede, as his sister Maddalena, offers a bawdy and engaging performance.

Todd Thomas, in the small but pivotal role of Monterone, invokes the curse on Rigoletto in chilling fashion.

The Lyric Opera Chorus is marvelous, singing with precision. They complete the picture of a dysfunctional court of intrigue and sexual tawdriness with great skill. Conductor Marco Armiliato leads the Lyric Opera Orchestra with fine pacing, even if a bit of the drama is left on the pages of the score.

Director E. Loren Meeker brings no new ideas to the table, settling for fairly static blocking, except for the chorus that she moves about in awkward fashion. She’s limited by tight confines in Rigoletto’s home and Sparafucile’s inn (both the same small space which is hardly convincing as either a residence or a hostelry). The costumes are pleasing and the title character’s vivid, colorful motley is in stark contrast to his dark and brooding nature.

The vocal power of this “Rigoletto” is not to be missed.

* * *

University of Chicago Presents opened their season Friday night in an unusual location: the theater at International House. It was packed with chairs around tables with a cash bar at the back to match the theme of the night’s performance: An Alehouse Session.

The baroque ensemble Barokksolistene gave a delightful performance of both composed and folk music primarily of the 1600s, creating an evening of unalloyed fun.

The music of Henry Purcell was mixed with silly ballads and simple work songs in an effective and entertaining fashion. There was splendid dancing and some songs were acted out in amusing ways. At one point they created a brief ballroom brawl in slow motion that was detailed and hilarious. At another, two musicians moved down from the stage into the audience and performed a little “fight” over a woman which was done almost entirely while playing instruments. There was audience involvement (including singing) and the group moved from strength to strength throughout the evening.

This talented ensemble pleased the audience from beginning to end, creating one of the most enjoyable season openers in a very long while.