By Lawrence Budmen

Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto has long won a treasured spot on opera’s top ten list. Based on a play by Victor Hugo, Rigoletto weaves a tale of arrogant and corrupt power, misguided love, and vengeance gone awry. Verdi imbued this tragic epic with a wealth of inspired melodies, brilliantly gleaming orchestral textures, and a tightly wound musico-dramatic structure. 

Florida Grand Opera’s new production of this popular work (seen on March 18 at Dade County Auditorium) is a strikingly inventive recreation of this melodrama in modern terms. FGO fields a strong cast that does justice to Verdi most of the time. This is a well rehearsed, serious presentation that takes the music and libretto seriously. 

Director Mark Lamos and set and costume designer Michael Yeargan have opted for a basically traditional approach with a modern theatrical sensibility. Yeargan’s spare, angular sets suggest a society - Ducal Court of Mantua - that is unhinged. The elaborate courtiers costumes and the court commedia have the aura of an over the top carnival. Mark McCullough’s nightmarish lighting adds dramatic power to the tale’s inexorable march to tragedy. Lamos paced the action tautly in a series of striking tableaux.

Leah Partridge as Gilda is the true star of this production. After an excellent Lucia last season, Partridge takes a giant step forward. Not a mere soubrette, her Gilda sings forth in a large, multi-colored lyric-coloratura soprano of great depth and beauty. Her Caro Nome was no mere display piece but a rapturous outpouring of love. Partridge’s coloratura roulades were precise and brilliant. In the final act she turned grandly tragic with an affecting, lyrically beautiful death scene. An intense stage presence, Partridge created a strongly theatrical portrait of Rigoletto’s daughter. This gifted soprano is clearly headed for stardom. 

Stefano Secco revealed a fine lyric tenor as the Duke of Mantua. Secco’s compact, well produced sound sometimes succumbed to pressure on high notes. His La Donna Mobile was rather edgy but in the first act duet with Partridge and the great quartet of the last act, his soft tones were ravishingly beautiful. His dulcet version of the Duke’s second act aria had real Italianate fervor.

As the hunchback Rigoletto, Bruno Caproni brought a sizable voice that lacked the baritonal velvet of such great interpreters of the role as Ettore Bastianini, Robert Merrill, Cornell MacNeil, or the underrated Matteo Managuera. He was more effective at projecting the court jester’s fury than his tenderness for his daughter. Yet he rose to tragic heights in the final scene and sang his concluding duet with the dying Gilda magnificently. Caproni’s Rigoletto was a seasoned, commanding interpretation. 

As the assassin Sparafucile Morris D. Robinson was a hulking, menacing presence with a deep, powerful, almost Slavic basso voice. Audrey Babcock’s dusky mezzo-soprano and compelling theatricality lit up the stage as Maddalena. Among the supporting cast David Crawford was an intense Monterone with a strong baritone to match. 

Stewart Robertson conducted with crisp authority and drew some fine, old fashioned rubatos and portamentos from his string section. 

This Rigoletto was far more than the sum of its components. Verdi’s masterpiece was brought to vivid operatic life. When Partridge held center stage, Verdi’s bel canto melodies really soared.

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