Music, Maledictions, and Murder: Southern Ontario Lyric Opera does Rigoletto in Burlington

Jeffrey Carl, Rigoletto; Allison Cecilia Arends, Gilda; Romulo Delgado, Duke of Mantua; ​Adriana Albu, Maddelena ; Photo credit: SOLO


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​​Review by Paul Merkley F.R.S.C.

Toronto ON September 17th 2018

I learned two important things yesteray: there is a sufficiently large (and discerning) opera audience in Burlington to justify and sustain productions, and the Southern Ontario Lyric Opera Company is up to the task.

Opera is arguably the greatest achievement of civilization (those in the know will point out that even Klingons revere opera). I love to hear productions in the large, famous opera theatres: the Met, Covent Garden, La Scala, Canadian Opera Company, but I am very pleased that I can also attend a performance just down the road from my home.

Community operas must manage on a much smaller budget than larger houses. Today the Burlington Performing Arts Cenrte was about two thirds full, so say 300 tickets, averaging $70. per ticket, making a budget of $21,000. From that all expenses must be covered: rental of the space, payments to singers and instrumentalists, and other costs.

It is a shoestring budget. Three of the singers are well established stars. Others are aspiring singers who may have day jobs, and who are billeted while they attend the rehearsals and performance. They may travel from Ottawa to a performance in southern Ontario, then have a flat tire on the way back to another performance and a shift at their day jobs. You might meet one in a taxi (I have) or in the checkout line of a grocery store and not know it.

The lifestyle is worth it for young singers, because they hope to matriculate to larger productions in larger companies. Also, they are doing what they love, and it shows.

Verdi composed Rigoletto in 1851, the libretto based on Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse. The scenes are longer than in his early operas, they are more dramatic, and there is great musical unity. The lynchpin of the plot is a curse directed at the Duke of Mantua and the title character, a curse that bounces around the cast of characters and claims the life of the heroine, indirectly by the hand of her grieving father Rigoletto. The latter’s line that he has been cursed occurs several times in the music of the long first scene, making the equivalent of a motive.

The role was played convincingly and movingly by veteran baritone Jeffrey Carl. His expression ran the gamut from mocking the courtiers in the first act, begging them for mercy when they abducted his daughter, to the final heartbreak in the third act when the assassin he hired killed her instead of the intended target of his revenge.

The best performance in the cast was unquestionably that of the impressive, young coloratura Allison Cecila Arends (Gilda). What a voice! The ease with which she floated to the top of her range and the precision of expression captured the attention and admiration of the audience. We could not have had a better performer had we been in Toronto or New York.

This opera draws a great deal on Mozart’s writing and the ensembles are very important. The duets between Arends and Romulo Delgado (the duke) were beautifully sung, even and especially the difficult a capella sections, accurately in tune and movingly executed. The same was true of the heart-rending duets between Arends and Carl.

But the best part of the evening was the quartet with Arends and Carl on the outside of the inn, and Delgado and Adriana Albu (Maddalena), whose lovely mezzo voice we did not hear enough of, in the interior. Rigoletto forced Gilda to listen to the duke, with whom she was still in love, seduce and be seduced by Maddalena, the assassin’s sister, this in an attempt to destroy Gilda’s feelings to prepare the way for Rigoletto’s revenge. While the pair inside sang of their superficial desires, outside the inn a father’s heart broke as he ripped the naiive devotion from the daughter who was his whole life.

Had the duke’s professed feelings for Gilda been real? The music, I think, told us that they had been, but that during the month in which the two were apart, he reverted to his rakish behavior. Verdi, like Mozart, was a master at conveying the intangible through the music.

What an afternoon! The acoustics of the Burlington Performing Arts Centre are excellent. The sets were of course minimal, but well chosen and effective. Sabatino Vacca conducted very well.

There were strong performances by other cast members, the young singers who will, it is hoped, undertake the major roles of tomorrow. Baritone Ryan Hofman (the courtier Marullo) animated his role with his voice and his acting, giving an energy and direction to his scenes that played against Rigoletto. Tenor Corey Arnold (Borsa) played a good foil to Rigoletto, in his well sung and carefully acted performance.

If you missed the performance it is your loss. All of the show-stopping arias in the production were beautifully performed. If you live nearby and you missed it, now you know—the opera comes to your doorstep. It returns in March with Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I’ll be there!