2012 Rigoletto Preview Article-Sacramento

Sac Opera opening with a fresh take on ‘Rigoletto’

By Edward Ortiz
Sacramento Bee

Published: Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012 – 12:00 am | Page 1D

A seasoned cast comes to this weekend’s production of “Rigoletto,” and the singers will approach the opera with the eyes of an ingenue.

In this “Rigoletto,” the first full-length staged production from the Sacramento Opera this season, the direction and some of the major roles are being shaped by talent that has never before done the opera.

“We’re creating something from our perspective – rather than coming in and saying ‘This is how I’m used to doing it,’ ” said soprano Katrina Thurman, a newcomer to the role of Gilda, Rigoletto’s chaste daughter. “We’re putting it together from the ground up.”

David Small, who sings the title role, affirms Thurman’s view: “This is really a sort of special first time for us – it’s like we’re doing a premiere of an opera, even though the work has been around for over 100 years.”

Small is a well-known entity here, having sung the role of Scarpia in “Tosca” and Belcore in “Elixir of Love” in recent Sacramento Opera productions. Thurman last sang with the company as Adina in “Elixir” in 2009.

With this “Rigoletto,” the company hopes to sate the desire for full-length opera among faithful patrons. It has been more than a year since the company produced a full-length work, after canceling the remainder of its 2010-11 season.

The production, which will be performed Friday and Sunday at Sacramento’s Community Center Theater, will see familiar faces returning to the company – including former longtime artistic director Timm Rolek, who will be at the podium for the first time since the company went dark last year.

Also returning is Chuck Hudson, who has directed some of the company’s recent productions. This will be his first full-blown take on “Rigoletto.” He likes the opera’s lurid nature and some of its Shakespearean qualities.

“This opera has a lot to do with men in power and their abuse of women,” Hudson said.

He finds the Rigoletto character – who must shamefully satisfy the powers that be while protecting his daughter from them – similar to another famous character with a physical deformity: Richard III.

“That exteriorization of inner evil? That’s very interesting,” Hudson said.

The opera, which premiered in 1851, is Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s tragic play “le roi s’amuse.”

It tells the tale of Rigoletto, a hunchback court jester who toils in the debauched court of the Duke of Mantua – a prodigious womanizer.

The dramatic tension rises when the Duke seduces and captivates the innocent young Gilda.

Hugo’s deeply controversial play was a scathing critique of France’s ruling class in the early 19th century. Verdi’s work also created a dust-up with censors, forcing changes in the work.

“We’re really enjoying the dark side of the loss of innocence with Gilda,” Hudson said. “She’s genuinely innocent, and that’s one of the hardest things to play.”

Revisiting her life as a teen has been fruitful ground for Thurman in prepping the Gilda character.

“All of us have been young once and had that first love, and know that feeling of being hooked on someone,” she said.

In the opera, Gilda is smitten with the Duke, and her actions are those of a character lost in an emotional sea. When she finds out that her father has hatched a plot to assassinate the Duke, she seeks to stop it.

“I had a boyfriend cheat on me in junior high school – and with this role I have been thinking a lot about how hard it was for me back then to put together what was happening,” Thurman said. “With this story, things are happening on a much grander scale, but it’s still the idea that what is happening to Gilda is that of someone being used and not understanding why.”

On the other end of the purity scale is the Rigoletto character.

“For Rigoletto, it’s an emotional struggle between the black-and-whiteness of right and wrong,” Small said.

He finds it challenging to connect with how Rigoletto can reconcile his primal fatherly instincts and a venal, Machiavellian nature.

“He has to balance the two, and figure out if the two things match – which they don’t,” Small said.

The soft-spoken Small said his portal into the humanity of Rigoletto’s tortured soul comes from parenting. Like Rigoletto, Small is the father of a single child.

“The level of emotional attachment that you have to a single child? That’s a different-quality attachment because the stakes are so much higher,” Small said. “It puts what you do in a completely different light.”

In rehearsal, Small and director Hudson have been making sure to tap into that attachment.

“In rehearsal, I’ve heard David say, ‘I cannot imagine any of this happening to my daughter,’ ” Hudson said.

“To have to play that part of the character? That is a wonderful reach for David’s characterization.”