Bleak and forbidding, the 16th-century Mantua of Verdi's "Rigoletto" is a place that might as well have "Abandon hope all ye who enter here" emblazoned above the proscenium arch. Murder and kidnapping reign in the city state, while the actual leader flaunts his libertine lifestyle in a way that would make Don Giovanni blush. Framed by cold stone walls and excessively mean-spirited courtiers, the Pittsburgh Opera production captured that dark world in its run that opened Saturday night at the Benedum Center.
Rigoletto, the hunched-back jester, must embody that darkness, and that indeed marked the awe-inspiring performance of the bass-baritone Mark Delavan. He was something to see, fully committed to fleshing out every nuance of the bitter man who curses the world -- even as he is mortified to be cursed himself.
But much more so he was something so to hear. He announced his presence with a couple of long notes that remarkably changed hue as they grew louder: a true Verdi baritone had arrived, as well as the twisted buffoon. But what does this really mean? While the composer often asked these voices to rise above the orchestra, they do not belt out the entire time like in Wagner. To be a Verdi baritone is as much a matter of timing as tone and volume. Mr. Delavan picked his spots. His sumptuous, oaken timbre was omnipresent. But it wasn't until the second act that he brought it out in fearsome force in the ferocious "Cortigiani" in which he excoriates the courtiers who nabbed his daughter Gilda (Lyubov Petrova) as a prank. Humor in this world is not exactly the belly-splitting sort.
Mr. Delavan's matching his delivery with plot was his own design, but it was facilitated by director Linda Brovsky adept staging. What an atmosphere she created! From the haughty mannerisms of the Duke of Mantua (Michael W. Lee) to the look-that-says-it-all that Gilda flashes Rigoletto before telling him about her affair with the Duke. To a person, the characters came across as natural because of the details she developed. Mr. Lee's voice left a lot to be desired in terms of tonal focus and color, but I have never seen a Duke so realistic as this. I love how he checked out the crispness of his shirt even as he complained that he might never see Gilda again. A self-absorbed character played in a self-absorbed manner.
Some details were a bit much, like the beating of Monterone (Joseph Barron), the man who lays that telling curse on Rigoletto for making fun the fact that the Duke deflowered his daughter (less than subtle foreshadowing, but it is opera, after all). That would hardly have happened during a court dance party. But most of her staging was unaffected and believable. Ms. Petrova was made for this role, portraying innocence and optimism with buoyant phrasing and puppy-dog eyes. Raymond Aceto's Sparafucile personified sociopath through stoic exterior and full and appropriately sour tone.
Mr. Barron, Matteo Borsa (Juan Jose de Leon), Marullo (Kyle Oliver) and Maddalena (Samantha Korbey) -- all from the Pittsburgh Opera's training program -- were more than adequate singers who inhabited their roles well as actors.
The sets -- imposing to match the weight of the plot -- were by John Michael Deegan and Sarah J. Conly, and the lighting designer (or darkness designer in this case) was the stalwart local designer Andrew Ostrowski. I could be showing my ignorance of period outfits, but it seemed that costume designer Susan Memmot Allred made the outfits of the gentlemen and ladies of the court from curtains. In any case they were distracting, but that probably says more about me than it does about them. Antony Walker was brilliant, expressing the confidence the singers needed in the many times that they are doubled by pit instruments, and concertmaster Charles Stegeman delivered a delicate solo. It is a production well worth visiting, even if it is a desolate place.