Rigoletto's leads bring Vancouver Opera audiences to their feet

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      By Giuseppe Verdi. A Vancouver Opera production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, September 26. Continues on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday (October 1, 3, and 4)

      Vancouver Opera kicked off its final traditional season with a rare standing ovation—and that's not a bad way for the company to go out before changing to a spring-festival-only format.

      Rigoletto boasts singers who not only can handle the wide-ranging dynamics and acrobatic notes of Verdi’s classic tragedy, but are strong-enough actors to find new colours in some well-known characters.

      This is not a stand-and-sing production. In fact, Simone Osborne, as the lovelorn daughter of the title character, performs the first part of her "Caro Nome" aria lying splayed on the floor because she's so overcome with her crush. Not that you'd notice from the way she sails through the notes with the joy of a bird at sunrise.

      The rising Vancouver-born soprano, on her much-ballyhooed return home, brings extra fire to the put-upon Gilda. She’s the only person in the world who embittered court jester Rigoletto cares for, but his attempts to hide her away from the courtiers and keep her pure come to ruin when the lecherous Duke of Mantua targets her. Rather than play her fragile and naive to the Duke's smooth-talking, Osborne brings strength and youthful passion to her Gilda. It’s fun to watch the young soprano let loose with the vocal pyrotechnics, reaching the heights out of real emotion, and finding rich shades in the lower register.

      Osborne’s luminescent soprano mixed perfectly with Gordon Hawkins's oaky, heartfelt baritone. Under Nancy Hermiston's direction, the two build an unusually intimate, believable father-daughter bond in this Rigoletto. Instead of being standoff-ish and strict, as he can be in some versions, Rigoletto pulls her to his chest, where she curls her head from the pain of the outside world. 

      His Rigoletto is quietly tormented, and he excels at the music’s volatile range of volumes. Watch the way Hawkins finds a mix of terror, sadness, and even a little madness in his lurching humpback's repeated refrain, “(Quel vecchio maledivami!)” or "(That old man cursed me!)".

      Gordon Hawkins's tormented Rigoletto.
      Tim Matheson

      Their voices are matched by the other leads: Bruce Sledge is a true Verdi tenor, effortlessly projecting the composer’s mellifluous music. The third act's quartet, with him, Hawkins, Osborne, and the smokey-voiced mezzo Carolyn Sproule, is as gorgeous as it is wonderfully modulated. The Duke is suitably cruel here, tossing wine at a conquest in the first act, but he could use a little more sex appeal—some of the swagger, perhaps, of bass Matthew Trevino's sinister, leather-panted assassin Sparafucile.

      Conductor Jonathan Darlington and his orchestra give versatile support to Rigoletto’s crack cast, manoeuvring adeptly through a range of tempi and dynamics. Check out the overture, where crying horns and buzzing violins build to a crashing crescendo.

      Production-design-wise, this mounting is not out-of-the-box—not like the controversial cage-set version we saw here six years ago. The traditional sets, on loan from Utah Opera, use the multilevel, limestone-brick towers of 16th-century Italy to create a purposely cramped intensity. They work best in the third act, with the crumbling, deconstructed walls of Sparafucile's house and a misty canal.

      So, conceptually, this Rigoletto may not be ambitious. But who needs high concept when you have music and characters this top-notch? Apparently not the majority of the VO audience, who aren’t always prone to getting on their feet to clap.

      Follow Janet Smith on Twitter @janetsmitharts.