In the opera world, where loyalty to the libretto is oftentimes taken for poor taste and the use of period sets and costumes is attributed to the lack of a directorial concept, seeing a traditional production becomes a rare (and very comforting) treat. While certain enjoyment may be found in minimalistic sets and street clothes replacing costumes, a traditional production staged with respect for the libretto and the classical staging canons will never be out of style.

© Rich Riggins
© Rich Riggins

On Friday night the Lyric Opera Baltimore paid its tribute to the bicentennial of Giuseppe Verdi by crowning its season with John Hoomes’ production of one of the composer’s best loved operas, Rigoletto. From the luxury of the ducal salon with its marble staircases and massive statues, to the lonely moonlit garden in front of Rigoletto’s house, to the gloomy shabbiness of Sparafucile’s inn, a gallery of compelling traditional sets by Allan Charles Klein recreated the feel of the opera’s 1851 Viennese première. The golden embroideries and expensive-looking fabrics of the Renaissance costumes, designed by A.T. Jones with a sense of period fashions and utmost attention to detail, added splendor and authenticity to Hoomes’ production.

However, it was thanks to an astonishing cast of well-matched vocalists that the evening turned out to be quite memorable. Bringing her vast tonal spectrum into her portrayal of Gilda, soprano Norah Amsellem started off with an unusually dark rendition of “Caro nome”. However, as the opera progressed, the soprano added light and air to her tone, filling her performance with brilliant coloratura passages and effortless trills.

From the first sounds of his ironic “Voi conguiraste contro noi, Signore”, powerhouse baritone Steven Powell ruled the stage as the Duke’s hunchbacked jester Rigoletto. His nuanced treatment of the score, refined diction, flexibility of lyrical voice and commanding stage presence allowed the baritone to portray the character in the way that Verdi had envisioned him: sarcastic and ruthless on the outside, yet vulnerable and tender on the inside.

However, the biggest triumph of the evening belonged to Baltimore’s all-time favorite tenor, Bryan Hymel, whose irresistibly charming Duke of Mantua inspired sympathy rather than disgust. Convincing in every word of his arias, this Duke made us first believe in the sincerity of his passion for Gilda in his dreamy “Parmi veder le lagrime” and very shortly after reassured us in his readiness for new love escapades in his witty “La donna è mobile”. The tenor’s golden tone, warm old-fashioned vibrato and endless breath paid dividends all evening, turning this vocalist into a major standout.

The only disappointment of the evening came from the pit. Having a hard time coordinating the sound of the orchestra with the voices onstage, conductor Richard Buckley allowed the orchestra to sound overwhelmingly loud and play at an insanely fast tempo, thus forcing the vocalists to struggle in order to be heard and rush in order to get to the end of each line before the beginning of the next one. However, once Buckley gained some control over the pit, the production became a true joy to watch.

Even though this performance did not go without a hitch, thanks to the superb vocalism and acting of the cast, this Rigoletto still became a beautiful tribute to one of the greatest opera composers of all times as well as a tribute to the good-old staging tradition, which (if done well) never loses its charm.