Encore Michigan

MOT’s ‘Rigoletto’ goes to 1950s Little Italy and is full of Goodfellas

Review October 15, 2017 David Kiley

DETROIT, Mich.–Twentieth century updates of 19th century operas is very hit and miss. But the Michigan Opera Theatre’s production of Rigoletto, set in Little Italy in New York City in the 1950s, the era of The Godfather’s Mafia hoodlums, is a delight.

The opera is by Giuseppi Verdi, but this productions and interpretation is by Jonathan Miller, who first did this version in 1982. The update attracted international attention at the time for its ingenuity and creativity, and was even shot and aired on television in 1989.

The opera is sung in Italian, a good choice, worth noting, since there is the option of doing it in English. The super-titles in this opera point the way to the fact that some emotions are better expressed in Italian.

In the original, Rigoletto, a court jester, abets his Duke in the capture and bedding of a courtier’s daughter. Later in the opera, the tables are turned on Rigoletto, as hostile courtiers-seeking revenge– take Rigoletto’s beloved daughter whom he keeps under lock and key thinking it’s his mistress. Rigoletto commissions a barkeeper and made-man wannabe, Borsa, to kill the Duke, but the plot goes horribly wrong. In this production, the Duke is depicted as a Mafia capo, and the courtiers are the “crew” of the Don. Rigoletto is a bartender at the social club where the Duke’s “family” hangs out.

Joshua Guerrero as the Duke (performing in all performances except 10/22) has a resonant tenor and embodies the arrogant power of a young Mafia Don who exhibits dissociative behavior, ever emboldened by the power of his army in suits. He occasionally soften this façade with humor like when he pauses to comb his crown of greasy black hair in a way that reminds us of Danny Zucco in Grease. His delivery of the signature “La Donna e mobile “is lovely and spot-on what we want.

Roland Wood as Rigoletto balances fine acting with a gorgeous baritone. Sure Rigoletto is no saint, but Wood still manages to make us empathize with his vulnerability. He is old, has a hunchback, and is working and living amongst a band of thugs who take what they want regardless of who it hurts. When he learns of daughter Gilda’s is capture, and later of her death, he perhaps could have broken down a bit more. But sometimes the director doesn’t want such scenes to get too bogged down in order to keep the story moving. Nicholas Pallesen will play the role on on 10/22.

So Young Park plays Gilda, and her vocal control is extraordinary. Verdi wrote some extremely difficult arias for Rigoletto’s daughter, but Park stands up to each one beautifully.

Two key supporting roles, Borsa (Matthew DiBattista), who seems to channel Robert DeNiro as a young Don Corleone in Godfather 2, plays his role darkly and effectively. Nicole Piccolomini as Borsa’s sister and accomplice Maddalena, is sexy and sultry and her mezzo soprano voice stands out.

The set design, by Patrick Robertson, who also directs the excellent costumes, is terrific as we toggle between the Mafia social club, and exterior of a tenement building in Manhattan and New York City street and the exterior of Borsa’s Edward Hopper-painting like bar. Music is conducted by Stephen Lord.

Modern-day updates of classic operas often fall flat, the indulgence of directors desperate to break out of the confines of the original libretto. But Goodfellas meets Rigoletto is one of the big winners of this genre.

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Week of 4/22/2019

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