Opera’s power lies in its exploration of the timeless universals of human experience. Presented competently, heartbreak, vengeance, forgiveness, the tragedy of justice denied or the comedy of justice triumphant should all be equally affecting whether the specific events portrayed take place in 2019 or 1319. No opera worth staging truly needs updating to make its point; then again, if you don’t distort its core concepts, you can do anything you like with an opera’s details.
Rethinking them in modern dress can prove intriguing — especially when done as expertly as director Lindy Hume has for Seattle Opera’s “Rigoletto,” which opened Saturday, Aug. 10. Subtly, thoughtfully and insightfully, she’s turned Verdi’s 1851 melodrama into a surefire argument starter.
The title character is part of the entourage of a dissolute duke (whom Hume based, she says in the program, on the corrupt, womanizing ex-Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi). A sort of court jester, Rigoletto angers the hangers-on with his jokes, and in return one of them curses him. It doesn’t take long to take effect: Turns out the Duke of Mantua’s latest conquest, the young woman he’s interested in and vice versa, is Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda. The entourage kidnaps her to the Duke’s palace, but Rigoletto’s counter-revenge plan, thanks to the curse, goes hideously wrong.
One key to the sexual politics of “Rigoletto,” as always, is how much consent the women indicate, and here’s where your arguments will start. Hume seems decidedly uninterested in letting the audience sit back and feel superior to the characters we’re watching (there’s quite enough moral complacency onstage as it is), and she makes some interesting decisions to point up some of the storyline’s ambiguities. In the first scene, the women of the entourage openly flirt with the Duke, trading their favors, it’s implied, for his patronage — or does the power differential between them and the Duke make true consent impossible?
And later, can we believe the Duke when he says he’s falling in love with Gilda? He’s obviously skilled at telling people what they want to hear, but he declares his love in a solo aria, when no one’s around to hear him. If he does love her, does that make him less of a pig? Or more? The misogynist lyrics of the Duke’s final-act aria “La donna è mobile,” in which he mocks women’s fickleness, are particularly controversial, but Hume and Liparit Avetisyan, who sings the role in the Saturday cast, put a new twist on them simply by showing the Duke drunk in this scene — hurt by Gilda’s departure and remorseful over his treatment of her, one could infer. Is he really so contemptuous of women, or is he just expressing his bitterness in a weak and wounded moment? Does it make a difference?
The true villain in this show is the entourage — the mutually enabling, toxically masculine mob. (Hume indicts the church, too, by adding two clergymen to the group, clearly doing nothing to stop the debauchery.) It’s hinted that despite his power, the Duke’s abuse of women is driven partly by peer pressure. Does this exonerate him at all? When he first hears of Gilda’s abduction, Avetisyan as the Duke shows a flash of anguish — but quickly has to pretend to approve of the crime for machismo’s sake. Yongzhao Yu, the Sunday cast’s Duke, plays this scene more straightforwardly; rather than being troubled by the kidnapping, he moves right into predatory mode.
Two well-matched trios take the double-cast principal roles. Avetisyan is joined by Madison Leonard as Gilda and Lester Lynch as Rigoletto in one of the casts; their counterparts in the other cast are Yu, Soraya Mafi and Giuseppe Altomare. Very broadly speaking, the former cast’s voices are a bit gutsier and their delivery more showily emotive, the latter cast’s lighter and brighter. Both Gildas make their big solo moment, the aria “Caro nome,” the production’s vocal highlight, affecting and technically sure. (It’s a twittery throwback to the “canary arias” of an earlier generation of Italian composers — naturally, because Gilda’s an old-fashioned girl.)
Hume’s two previous productions for Seattle Opera have been comedies, Rossini’s “Count Ory” and “Barber of Seville,” and she brings out several comic touches here, too, unfortunately including one ill-advised idea that nearly kills the mood of the abduction scene. But “Rigoletto’s” darkest joke is that Sparafucile, the hit man Rigoletto hires to take care of the Duke — sung powerfully by Ante Jerkunica — is one of the opera’s very few characters with an unshifting moral code. On top of that, a staging decision is made here that actually makes him halfway heroic. The irony caps wonderfully this compelling and provocative staging — lots of theatrical excitement but no easy answers.
“Rigoletto” by Giuseppe Verdi. Through Aug. 28; Seattle Opera, Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; tickets start at $35; 206-389-7676, seattleopera.org