Can you set Verdi’s Rigoletto in a high-rise apartment building, in modern dress, without popping any of your credulity strings? Probably not, but that is what Opera Hamilton has done in its latest production, directed by Michael Cavanagh.

Jason Howard © Peter Oleskevich
Jason Howard
© Peter Oleskevich

During the overture, Rigoletto, a court jester, walks on stage dragging a large duffel bag from which he pulls out a puppet that he will use to mock the courtiers. We will see the duffel bag again!

The opening scene of the opera is a ball in the Duke of Mantua’s palace, or here, in an apartment or office in a high-rise building with a view of a city’s skyline in the back. A bunch of businessmen change from their black suits into Halloween costumes. They are going to have a wild party. Women are sexual objects, at best, and morality does not exist even as a word. In order to understand the production, we need to adopt a new vocabulary for the opera. Make the Duke of Mantua the Boss. The courtiers are employees. Rigoletto, the court jester, is the office clown, and we are in a modern city with elevators and computers visible. Forget the paraphernalia of a traditional production.

Rigoletto has a mildly deformed right shoulder and wears a suit throughout, except in the Halloween party scene. He is a loathsome toad who taunts a fellow employee whose wife the Boss tries to seduce and simply mocks another man whose daughter was raped. When his own daughter is raped, he asks for sympathy. Baritone Jason Howard has a commanding physical presence as Rigoletto and vocal prowess to match. He revels in cruelty, wallows in self-pity and is terrified by a curse. He almost evokes some sympathy from us and perhaps has a redeeming virtue in the love of his daughter, but in the intense light of Cavanagh’s interpretation, he appears more a controlling tyrant than a loving father.

His daughter Gilda is a pretty girl who spends her time in an apartment playing with her Apple laptop. She can charitably be described as stupid, but where would the plot go if she had any brains? Soprano Simone Osborne has a mellifluous voice and she projected innocence and purity. There was an incongruity in a modern woman, dressed in a sweatshirt and appearing naïve. When she is raped, she comes out as if she just woke up late for her yoga class. That is not her fault though, and she sang well, but would do much better in a traditional production.

The Boss is a womanizer, a rapist, and an employer from hell. When an employee named Monterone complains that the Boss raped his daughter, he is simply fired. In Cavanagh’s production Monterone walks out with a banker’s box carrying the contents of his desk. In the original opera, he is carried off to be executed. Gordon Gietz as The Duke of Mantua was young and agile with a splendid, light tenor voice. He may not reach the highest notes, but his Boss/Duke captured the devil-may-care cruelty of the character.

The other employees of the Duke of Mantua Company are equally despicable. For them, kidnapping is just a lark. They are played by mostly young singers with Taras Kulish as a sonorous Monterone, Ben Covey as Marullo and Michael Rusnak as the insulted Ceprano.

Sparafucile (sung by Kulish) is an independent contractor in the business, responsible in eliminating people for a fee. He is a principled killer. His sister Maddalena is an attractive whore who forces him to abandon his principles for the sake of love – her love for the Boss! Mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal has the physical attributes to attract customers to Maddalena’s profession and the vocal chords to keep them. Good job.

There are other problems and incongruities that result from Cavanagh’s forced approach. In the end, however, by re-tooling the opera thus, Cavanagh shines a very strong light on the plot for better and for worse. It is like seeing an X-ray of, say, the Mona Lisa. It may be Da Vinci’s painting but the effect is completely different.

David Speers conducts the Opera Hamilton Orchestra in the pit that is more like a mine of the rather austere Dofasco Center for the Arts in a city known more for steel than the arts. The production does come back to the beginning when we see the duffel bag produced with Gilda’s body in it. Superb. But Cavanagh has one more directorial stroke. We see Gilda’s spirit above as she sings her final duet with her father. Murder, treachery, rape and cruelty are capped by an apotheosis.

***11