At the end of its 2014-15 season, Vancouver Opera announced that it would be transitioning into a festival model for financial reasons starting in 2017. Rigoletto, the opening opera of the 2015-16 season, served as an excellent benchmark both for what the company does well and what needs to be improved in the upcoming restructuring.

For the past few seasons, the musical values at Vancouver Opera have been steadily increasing – the casting director must be commended for selecting a group of singers that would be worthy of any opera house in the world. In the title role, Gordon Hawkins displayed a rich, vibrant baritone that was thrilling in its sheer power. However, it was in the arching cantabile passages of the role that Hawkins truly excelled, with scarce a breath to be heard in ‘Cortigiani’ and the final duet. Rigoletto is by now a signature part for Hawkins, who plays the role as a fully sympathetic Byronesque hero – if he lacked the ideal bite and venom in the role, it seemed a calculated choice. Similarly, Bruce Sledge’s Duke was stylish throughout, dispatching all of the turns and roulades with insouciant ease. His bel canto tenor has certain grown in power, hitting the role’s many high notes with clarion strength, but like Hawkins was most convincing in the long legato lines of the second act. Most convincing of all was Simone Osborne’s Gilda, much to the delight of her hometown audience. Gilda is ideal for Osborne’s soprano at this point, with her appealingly girlish timbre, easy coloratura, and ringing high E flat. More importantly, her lyric coloratura has grown in richness and depth and was able to effectively convey Gilda’s development from young girl to tragic heroine. Particularly notable was her second act duet with Rigoletto, devastating in its intensity and running the full vocal gamut from a rich lower register to a pinpoint accurate ‘Si vendetta’ capped with a sustained E flat.

The smaller roles were uniformly cast from strength. Matthew Treviño and Carolyn Sproule made a wonderfully sexy pair as Sparafucile and Maddalena, tearing up the stage with relish. Treviño clearly relished the part, striding around in leather trousers and tossing out resonant low Fs. He was ideally matched with Sproule’s firebrand Maddalena, with energy and chest voice to burn. Cameron McPhail’s sonorous Monterone was a true star turn, his resonant baritone and charismatic presence making the audience sit up and take notice of his brief but crucial scene in act one. Also worth noting was Zachary Read’s Marullo, sung with aristocratic insouciance. The Vancouver Opera orchestra and orchestra were on top form brass tuning issues in the prelude aside, led by Jonathan Darlington in a brisk, dramatic reading of the score.

Shame, then, that these top-notch musical values were let down by the production. In contrast to Vancouver Opera’s controversial 2009 production set in a giant cage, this production was fully traditional. Though there is indeed nothing wrong with a traditional production, this particular one proved drab at best despite its glaringly colourful period costumes. Dwarfed by a mammoth set of moving beige staircases and walls, director Nancy Hermiston was left with a tiny, cluttered rectangle at the front of the stage that barely allowed room for anything other than an old-fashioned stand-and-sing approach. Worse still, the cast was hampered by massive satin and velvet costumes that were neither flattering nor conducive to movement, allowing nothing more debauched than a twirl around a chair in the opening orgy scene. Indeed, the production did nothing to suggest the contrasting locales of the work, culminating in titters when Sparafucile sailed off in a little rowboat from the remarkably clean tavern in the final act. A grand spectacle indeed, but one that unfortunately came at the expense of actual human interaction or atmosphere. Nevertheless, the cast managed to transcend the production to provide a fully satisfying evening – let us hope that Vancouver Opera’s new festival model allows it to put on productions worthy of its excellent musical standards.