The first opera I attended was Faust at Houston Grand Opera when I was 13 or 14 years old. A group of English teachers at our school took a group of us, and the experience was profound. I had never seen such enormous sets or heard artists with voices that blew the top of my head off.
Faust is a monster of an opera — five acts in three and a half hours — but I was completely transported. In the final scene, Marguerite dies while praying for her soul and goes to heaven while her lover Faust (who has sold his soul to Méphistophélès) is taken away to hell.
I still remember the way Houston Opera staged it: Marguerite is wearing shabby clothes and in complete disarray. In a quick-change behind the chorus of singers, she emerges in a gleaming white gown. She looks momentarily at Faust, then turns her attention upward. As Méphistophélès puts his black cloak over Faust’s shoulders and leads him to darkness, Marguerite ascends a brilliant white staircase into the clouds.
Yes, it was grand — huge — and I told the story so often that one time, while in the car, my dad told me to be quiet. He said, “I don’t want you to mention that opera ever again.”
There’s no such thing as having already seen an opera. Each production tells the story using its own unique approach to staging, costumes, sets… and it’s always a revelation to hear the artists’ interpretation of the music. I saw San Francisco Opera’s Rigoletto in 2012. Their sets were an explosion of color in gorgeous hues of magenta and purple.
Two nights ago, Bill and I saw Opéra National de Paris’ astonishing production of Giuseppe Verdi‘s Rigoletto at the Bastille. It’s sung in Italian, with English and French super-titles. The audience went wild. But before I explain why, here’s a quick summary of the story:
Rigoletto is a court jester who lives with his young and beautiful daughter, Gilda. Because his wife has died, he tries to protect his daughter from the world. However, the Duke has been following Gilda when she goes to church. She notices the handsome stranger and falls in love with him.
When Rigoletto finds out, he conspires to show Gilda that the Duke is a cad and woos many women. However, in spite of this, she still loves him. Rigoletto is so afraid of losing his daughter that he hires a professional assassin to kill the Duke.
But Gilda discovers the plot. Because she loves him, and she knows she’ll never have the Duke’s love, she dresses as a man and allows herself to be killed in his place. The “body of the Duke” is delivered to Rigoletto, but when he opens the shroud he discovers his daughter, who is near death. They sing a heartbreaking duet, then she dies.
Melodramatic, n’est-pas? Opera always is. That’s part of the appeal. It justifies (if that’s the right word) the thrilling impassioned voices that are the hallmark of this exciting art form.
The Paris production has been given a modern twist. There are two Rigolettos on stage; one sings the role (Quinn Kelsey) while the other actor is a ghost of Rigoletto who mourns throughout the production.
At the opening, his grief is shown as a cardboard box that holds the bloody clothing of his daughter. Then the stage sides and the “top” open — they’re the gigantic flaps of a cardboard box. The entire opera takes place inside this stage-sized stylized cardboard box.
It’s absolutely brilliant. Though the first scene is set in the court and the players are in period costumes, soon they are wearing contemporary clothing. The men of the court are dressed in black tuxedos.
At one point there are probably 25 men in tuxes singing together. A single opera singer can create incredible vocal power, but when 25 of them are going at full volume? It was like a tsunami of sound pouring from the stage.
And this contemporary take on Rigoletto works. Olga Peretyatko sings the role of the daughter; she has one of the most dynamic and expressive voices I’ve ever heard.
The production includes film shown on the top flap of the stage “box” and at one point there are four Gildas, demonstrating her growth from girlhood till the time of the story. Did I mention the Vegas show girls? the Duke doing cocaine? the magic? the big white staircase with dancers?
And the show also explores what happens when a parent is unable or unwilling to let their child go out into the world. There’s a parental grief that’s necessary for a parent to be successful, as a parent. And if they don’t? It leads to a kind of psychological death for the child. It was a profound, and profoundly moving, approach to the story.
What I love most about opera is the excitement of watching the interplay of accomplished artists: singers, costume designers, musicians, stage designers, and choreographers. When it’s done well I become that awestruck teenage boy all over again, swept up into something extraordinary.
The sold-out audience went crazy. There were six encores, the most I’ve ever seen. No one wanted to stop clapping, including us. The immense opera house resounded with men and women yelling bravo! bravo! bravo!