Political dictatorship, male-dominated hierarchies and women sexually exploited by those in power positions above them. For an opera written in 1851, Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto” presses a lot of contemporary buttons.
The piece’s relevance was newly sharpened by the young, New York-based director Austin Regan for the Minnesota Opera’s new production at the Ordway Music Theatre on Saturday evening.
The sense of freshness that Regan brought to one of Verdi’s most familiar operas was palpable. The 16th-century setting was updated to “now, or a time much like now.” Julia Noulin-Mérat’s sets evoked a drab totalitarianism, the back walls draped with what looked like plastic garden bags.
Within these murky, claustrophobic confines, armed militias stalked the corridors, impassively observing while a blinged-up Duke of Mantua partied with his all-male band of monied cronies.
Rigoletto, normally depicted as a hunchback, was boldly re-imagined by director Regan as wearing a leg brace. This somehow made the stifling degree to which he is hemmed in and hampered by the rigid social boundaries of the Duke’s regime seem even more oppressive than usual.
The Icelandic baritone Olafur Sigurdarson brought an oak-like steadiness of voice and considerable nobility of demeanor to his depiction of Rigoletto, the court jester fighting to avenge his daughter Gilda’s seduction by the Duke.
As Gilda, the Canadian soprano Marie-Eve Munger cut a more fragile figure. Her occasionally wavery vocalism chimed with the vulnerability of the character, although in the final scene the voice thinned dangerously close to inaudibility.
“Caro nome,” the Act One set-piece where Gilda daydreams about the Count’s attractions, was a particular high point. Lolling on a bed and flirtatiously kicking her heels, Munger made the aria a delightfully capricious interlude. It wasn’t quite Sandra Dee in “Grease,” perhaps, but it wasn’t too far off it.
The finest singing of the evening was that of the American tenor Joshua Dennis, who brought a ripe, supple tonal quality and a sappy brio to “Questa o quella” and the famous “La donna è mobile” — the latter surely a prime candidate for the most misogynistic aria in opera history.
As directed by Regan, Dennis’ Duke was arguably a touch too likable. Deep down he is a sexual predator, and his ugly, manipulative side was a bit underplayed.
Regan’s handling of the all-male chorus was particularly incisive, however. Their abduction of Gilda is framed as a queasy frat-boy jape, with fluorescent facemasks flitting eerily in the darkness.
And at the opera’s grim conclusion, Regan keeps the greatcoated ducal retinue on stage — a solid phalanx of impassive figures symbolizing male indifference to female suffering, and the rigidly patriarchal structures of Verdi’s opera.
Conductor Michael Christie drew crisp, idiomatic playing from the orchestra in his final production as Minnesota Opera’s music director.
He is going out on a high: This “Rigoletto” is one to make you think, and it powerfully scotches the notion that old operas have nothing of relevance to say about the problems we face in the 21st-century present.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.