Opera Philadelphia returned home to the Academy of Music on 29th April, after 942 days in the Covid wilderness. The company chose Rigoletto for the occasion, which has proved a popular choice throughout the season, with splashy new stagings at the Met and Covent Garden having already debuted. The production here underscored what Opera Philadelphia does best: discovering and presenting exciting young artists in inventive reinterpretations of the core repertory.

Raven McMillon (Gilda) and Anthony Clark Evans (Rigoletto)
© Dominic M Mercier

Lindy Hume’s take on Verdi’s middle-career masterpiece originated at New Zealand Opera and has previously been seen stateside in Seattle. (Daniel Pelzig helmed the Philadelphia run.) It elides time periods and puts front-and-center the vile treatment of women by men in power. The results are often visually striking and dramaturgically cloudy. The Act 1 party scene resembles a Wall Street bacchanal, with power-suited choristers swilling drinks and manhandling scantily clad supernumeraries. The Duke of Mantua appears as a vaguely demagogic politician, evoking memories of Donald Trump or Silvio Berlusconi; the latter’s “bunga bunga” parties served as Hume’s initial inspiration according to a program note.

Joshua Blue (Duke), Kristen Choi (Maddalena), Raven McMillon (Gilda) and Anthony Clark Evans
© Dominic M Mercier

While the Duke’s palace looks utterly contemporary, Rigoletto’s humble apartment recalls the setting of a 1950s kitchen-sink drama or Italian neorealist movie, with chintzy wallpaper and religious iconography. Later, Sparafucile’s seedy tavern could be mistaken for a set piece from Simon Stone’s new Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met, decked out with gaudy Christmas lights and soiled couches.

Production designer Richard Roberts makes each set piece distinct and memorable, and every scene works on its own terms. But the production rarely coalesces into a cohesive narrative idea, and some of the visual images seem ill-suited to the Academy’s vast, deep stage. Gilda’s kidnapping begins with a thrilling picture: as she sings the final bars of “Caro nome” as a bedtime prayer, the conspirators dot the periphery, ready to pounce once she falls asleep. Yet the majority of the subsequent scene is upstaged by a whirling turntable that obscures her actual abduction. A similarly distracting device interrupts the dramatic escalation of the quartet, “Bella figlia dell’amore”.

Opera Philadelphia chorus
© Dominic M Mercier

The performance was entirely harmonious when you focused on the music. The good news started in the pit, with Corrado Rovaris leading an energized, scrupulously detailed reading of the score. Rovaris proved unfailingly supportive to the singers, tapering phrases and adjusting dynamics to achieve the best results all around, but he never lost the thread of dramatic tension in the music. After sounding somewhat ragged in January’s performances of Oedipus Rex, the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra was back in grand form, and the chorus sounded refulgent under Elizabeth Braden’s preparation.

Baritone Anthony Clark Evans proved an ideal Rigoletto, immensely sympathetic in his characterization of a loving but tormented father. His voice easily filled every corner of the auditorium, yet it’s an essentially lyric instrument, with flawless legato rather than the brawn that defines many contemporary Verdi baritones. He brought a youthful energy to the role that made for a fascinating dynamic with the Duke, sung here with plenty of squillo by tenor Joshua Blue – they almost seemed two sides of a brotherly coin, rather than having a generational divide between them. But when Rigoletto’s rage came to the fore, Evans was chilling.

Wei Wu (Sparafucile) and Anthony Clark Evans (Rigoletto)
© Dominic M Mercier

Raven McMillon brought an attractive, bell-like soprano to Gilda, and her acting appropriately suggested childlike innocence. She seemed believably susceptible to the Duke’s advances and appropriately vulnerable to the leering men in his entourage. McMillon lacked some heft in her lower register but still offered a fully realized, admirable performance.

Supporting roles were cast uniformly from strength. Covered in tattoos, Wei Wu was a Sparafucile you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley, and Kristen Choi was a willing accomplice as Maddalena. Ben Wager was a rich-voiced, sympathetic Monterone. Kara Goodrich, who will sing Mimì for Opera Philadelphia next season, made an impression here as Countess Ceprano. Lauren Decker flaunted a distinctive timbre and commanding stage presence as Giovanna, suggesting that more substantial assignments are warranted.

Kara Goodrich (Countess Ceprano) and Joshua Blue (Duke of Mantua)
© Dominic M Mercier

Opera Philadelphia has admirably kept the home fires burning throughout the pandemic, with digital offerings, al fresco performances and community initiatives to fill in the gaps. This Rigoletto, however, really feels like a return to form. The business of getting back to normal will continue in the fall, when the much-lauded Festival O returns after a two-year absence.