BWW Reviews: Houston Grand Opera's RIGOLETTO is Sung Well but Flatly Acted
Houston Grand Opera (HGO) consistently brings the best the opera world has to offer to Houston stages. Time and time again, they cast operas with incredible talent and put on productions that are visually stunning as well. Their latest production of RIGOLETTO is no exception. Everything that makes performances at HGO exciting was perfectly in place. The auditorium was buzzing with excitement about the show, the cast was vocally impressive and on point, and the orchestra was playing with all the gusto and pizzazz that Giuseppe Verdi's darkly toned score requires.
However, its stumbling block was the fact that the cast seemed to be mostly plodding their way through the show. HGO first performed Giuseppe Verdi's classic in their 1958-59 season, and has since performed the piece nine other times. According to Operabase, it is also the 9th most performed opera in the world. Needless to say, everyone is familiar with RIGOLETTO and most of the cast could probably mark their way through it in their sleep. Unfortunately, a large number of the cast seemed to be doing just that at last Friday's performance.
Harry Silverstein's direction of the piece wasn't lifeless, but the amount of acting I'm used to seeing was missing from this production. During the rich overture, we see Ryan McKinny contort his body in time with the music as the stage more-or-less collapses in upon itself. This stylized opening definitely served to foreshadow the themes of the work, but was the most striking acting the audience saw all night. As the plot continued, the cast seemed to step on the stage, sing to the audience directly or sing while confronting another character, and then step off. Their vocals conveyed the spirit and emotion of the lyrics, but the physicality and presence on stage did not match the tumultuous, melodramatic plot.
Taking on the role of Rigoletto for the first time, Ryan McKinny is the absolute best part of this production. He deftly uses his powerful and deeply resonating bass-baritone instrument to sing with fervor and unrestrained emotionality. Every note released from his body held the attention of the audience and his rendition of "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata" in Act II left the audience breathless. Moreover, his performance was nuanced, allowing the audience to see how deeply he cares for his daughter, how others perceive her, and his desire to right every wrongdoing she suffers.
Stephen Costello sings the Duke of Mantua, a self-centered, lascivious rake, exceptionally well. His performances of "Possente amor mi chiama" and "La donna è mobile" are highlights of the evening. However, his characterization is often flat and one-dimensional. His shimmering tenor voice and tonal control suits the piece well, but I would have liked to see more from him in terms of stage presence and how he interacts with the other characters.
Taking on the sweet and innocent Gilda, Uliana Alexyuk stepped into the role at the last minute when Elizabeth Zharoff stepped out for personal reasons. Her brightly colored soprano instrument brings charming and delightful life to key moments like "Gualtier Maldé!... Caro nome," "Sì! Vendetta, tremenda vendetta!," and "V'ho ingannato." Conversely, she portrays Gilda as static and flat character. She is infatuated with the Duke of Mantua from the first time she sees him, and when she decides to die in his place it comes across as the fancy of a school girl with a crush and not a deeply troubling and stirring sentiment of a woman willing to give her life for the happiness of her love.
Another issue that plagued Friday night's performance was volume control. The stars all sang over the live accompaniment in the orchestra pit with relative ease during solos and duets. However, there was several times that when the full chorus was singing or when a quartet was signing that the human voice was completely overpowered by the live orchestra. While I have only been reviewing HGO performances for a short time, this was an unpleasant first for me to experience at one of their productions.
While still relatively new to my fandom of opera, this was my first live experience with RIGOLETTO. I am happy to have seen the production, and can definitely see how people really enjoy seeing this opera staged once every three to four years. Conversely, I feel that it may be time to put RIGOLETTO to bed for a while. If the cast and directors are going to just mark their way through performances while still singing with enthusiasm, save your patrons their ticket prices and let them just purchase an audio recording of the opera instead.
RIGOLETTO, produced by Houston Grand Opera, plays one more performance today at 2:00 p.m. at the Wortham Theater Center's Brown Theater, 500 Texas Avenue, Houston, 77002. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.houstongrandopera.org or call (713) 228-OPERA (6737).
If you miss out on RIGOLETTO, be sure to purchase tickets to Houston Grand Opera's upcoming presentations of Stephen Sondheim's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, Ricky Ian Gordon and Lenorard Foglia's A COFFIN IN EGYPT, Wilhelm Richard Wagner's DAS RHEINGOLD, and Georges Bizet's CARMEN. Information about all of these productions can be obtained at http://www.houstongrandopera.org or by calling (713) 228-OPERA (6737).
Uliana Alexyuk (Gilda) & Stephen Costello (Duke). Photo by Lynn Lane.