A mid-19th-century Italian opera with the sound of the human voice front-and-center, and seemingly dependent on the trappings of the theater. If we want to keep the program conservative why not go with an opera by Mozart, Bizet, Wagner, or Weber instead? All of them used the orchestra with greater freedom and independence than we associate with Italian composers, many of whom composed for the orchestra as if it were little more than a giant guitar. Or so you would think.

If the listener was clinging to that notion at the start of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's performance of Verdi's Rigoletto under Gustavo Dudamel last Sunday, it was broken by night's end. With all the distractions of the theater gone it was a performance that had a feeling of an invitation to discovery for its audience.

That was impressive enough in and of itself: a performance of one of the most famous operas of all time that scrubbed the score clean and laid it out as if it had been freshly inked. Dudamel's direction allowed the ingenuity of Verdi's orchestration to share the spotlight, coaxing from the score details that may have bypassed the listener in the theater. The zest and earthiness of the first act's court dances, the spectral nocturne that shaded the dialogue between Rigoletto and Sparafucile, the tempest leading up to the murder in the third act, and the full cry of the orchestra in the closing moments. Everything in the performance breathed a delighted awe of the composer's orchestral mastery. Which may just be the case as Dudamel, who began his career on the concert stage, has begun to dip his toes into opera—a genre that plays well to his dramatic strengths.

His direction was lean, muscular. Dudamel tightened the dramatic ratchet slowly and inexorably until its tragic close. Color abounded from the score, but never at the expense of breaking the architectural line.

But what is Verdi without fine voices? Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic, who is slated to sing the role for the Metropolitan Opera next year, was superb as the bitter hunchback who jealously protects his daughter. Lucic portrayed an Expressionist Rigoletto as if dreamed by F. W. Murnau. A character whose soul, riddled with wounded pride, barely allowed affection even for his daughter. It was a towering performance of tragic self-absorption.

Also superb was bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk in his darkly suave characterization of the assassin Sparafucile. A sinister character that could charm one moment, then slit your throat the next.

On a less exalted level was the remainder of the cast. Irina Lungu as Gilda was a sombre figure bereft of light. There was no fleeting radiance of hope for this Gilda. Hers was a Gilda determined to die. Lungu's arias were earthbound; her voice exhibiting wobbliness and flatness above the staff. David Lomeli's Duke of Mantua was less lecherous and misogynistic rake; more cheerful neighbor next door. His voice, however chipper, was excellent; with a pleasant gleam to his top notes. The hoary, tired Monterone of Ryan McKinney was a disappointment. Nancy Fabiola Herrera was in fine voice as Maddalena, though it was a characterization that was dutiful rather than seductive. The Los Angeles Master Chorale were their ever-outstanding selves.

The lingering heat wave in Los Angeles appeared to have kept the crowds in their air-conditioned homes. Their loss. This may have been one of the quiet highlights of the Bowl season. And the fresh breeze that softly swept into the Bowl after sunset certainly helped.