Any opera with a rape as its central dramatic event is bound to be a little twisted. That’s Rigoletto in a nutshell. It’s a non-romantic, romantic opera. The plot revolves around the violent deflowering of Gilda, the court jester Rigoletto’s beloved daughter, by his employer the Duke of Mantua. The opera’s title role is also a hunchback, the only happy male-female relationship in the story is between father and daughter, and the villain is a tenor. What a mess!

Adding lighter fluid to this dark, operatic wonderland being presented at Santa Fe Opera this summer is the direction by Lee Blakeley and Adrian Linford's scenic design for the open-air stage. Linford places his multi-dimensional set on a huge lazy-susan, but at all angles of rotation, the rooms revealed share a gritty color scheme and asymmetry – an architectural manifestation of the skewed morals of this ugly palace’s royal occupant, and the squalid ramifications for the royal subjects of this kingdom. Even Rigoletto’s place, where he keeps his daughter hidden away from temptation, looked about as homey as a rats’ warren; it is a literally twisted version of “home”.  Blakeley sets the action at the historical time of the opera’s composition, during the occupation of Italy by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but stages party scenes that look sleazier than a Bob Fosse musical.

And then there is the singing. Tenor Bruce Sledge was called-in to temporarily take on the role of the Duke after Bryan Hymel pleaded vocal exhaustion after his debut in Les Troyens at San Francisco Opera. Sledge may not have opera’s “rising-star” label attached to his name, as Hymel does, but he comfortably held his own in a very strong  cast of principals.

Georgia Jarman, as Gilda, managed the trills as well as the pathos of her vocal part; her acting ignored physical age in order to bring out the naiveté of a girl who falls for a scoundrel, unfortunately not an age-defined pitfall at all. Jarman’s soprano had grace, which made her more likeable, less the victim, even as she was being tossed-around, raped and murdered. Even her bloody death aria had a certain sweetness to it.

Quinn Kelsey lacks matinee-idol looks, which makes the hunchback’s pathos all the more credible. His sound, so commanding, emotional and complex, was the keystone of this production. His bass-baritone has all the qualities you could ask for in a Rigoletto, the darkness and the light. His limping, beleaguered characterization showed little of the jester’s wit, more of the comedian’s darkness. In a tragedy, that’s someone to relate to.

Chinese bass Peixin Chen’s, playing the assassin Sparafucile, had a darker timbre than Kelsey, yet his voice also avoided too much of a covered quality and allowed brightness and some humility into his villainy. In general, Rigoletto offers an occasion for the deeper ranges of the human voice to have their day, and Kelsey and Chen ably represented the part.

Although Nicole Piccolomini’s Maddalena had a hole somewhere in the middle of her register, the raw aspects of her voice actually added to the drama and desperation of the prostitute she was playing. The men of the chorus stood simply and sang impressively, one night after their workout as the soldiers of Daughter of the Regiment. Rigoletto may be dramatizing the composer’s political distaste for the leaders of his time, but its central idea about the abuses of power and the tragedy of a father’s inability to protect his offspring are timeless. Darkness serves a purpose here. Music needs it.