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Check out this preview of Opera Philadelphia's new production of Verdi's RIGOLETTO

Left to right: WRTI's John T.K. Scherch, soprano Raven McMillon, tenor Joshua Bell, and pianist Grant Loehnig in the WRTI Performance Studio.
Frank Luzi
Left to right: WRTI's John T.K. Scherch, soprano Raven McMillon, tenor Joshua Blue, and pianist Grant Loehnig in the WRTI Performance Studio.

Opera Philadelphia is returning to the Academy of Music stage for the first time in two years, welcoming back audiences with a work they haven’t performed in a decade and a half: Verdi’s Rigoletto.

The opera features some of the most famous numbers in the repertoire—the standout soprano aria “Caro nome,” the quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore,” and the aria that was kept a secret until the work’s premiere so nobody would leak it to street performers, “La donna è mobile.”

Tenor Joshua Blue sings "La donna è mobile" accompanied by pianist Grant Loehnig

The opera follows Rigoletto, the court jester for the Duke of Mantua, and the curse put upon him for his participation in the Duke’s culture of abuse. He realizes the curse’s work as his daughter Gilda is abducted, seduced by the Duke, and then fatally caught up in her father’s revenge.

Performing Rigoletto in the 21st century comes with an opportunity to present its most unsavory characters in a more contemporary light. The primary focus is the Duke, who gets the most famous arias and has received more forgiving portrayals in the past; however, director Daniel Pelzig makes it abundantly clear that the Duke is the opera’s main villain.

“In old-fashioned, traditional productions, [the Duke is] a charmer—the audience loves him,” says Pelzig. “But he’s a predator, and a serial sexual abuser.”

This will be emphasized in the production—there is a content warning for how blatantly the Duke’s conduct is staged, especially in Act 1, which has presented an interesting challenge for tenor Joshua Blue, who plays the Duke.

“[The Duke is] absolutely the worst person in the show, without a doubt,” says Blue. “And it's been really fascinating trying to figure out how to play him as not just a caricature of an evil person and a person that still has, like, emotions and wants and needs.”

In Act 2, for example, the Duke sings his sweetest-sounding and least famous aria, “Parmi veder le lagrime,” about how Gilda was taken from him—or at least wasn’t where he left her.

Tenor Joshua Blue sings "Parmi veder le lagrime" accompanied by pianist Grant Loehnig

“If you hadn't seen the first act of the show, you might think [the aria] is genuine, like longing and love and loss because he's so frustrated that she's been taken, until you refocus it…it is not, ‘oh, the love of my life isn't here.’ It's ‘this thing that should be mine is gone.’”

Soprano Raven McMillon, who plays Gilda, noted how her character’s relationship with Rigoletto leads to this plot development. “Poor Gilda,” she says.

“You can see the strained relationship immediately between Gilda and Rigoletto…I think it makes Gilda a very sympathetic character—when the Duke comes in and…he’s saying all these things and the audience knows he’s lying, but Gilda is so sheltered and she's so craving for affection, that it's so easy for her to just fall for these things.”

Soprano Raven McMillon sings "Gualtier malde!...caro nome" accompanied by pianist Grant Loehnig

Rigoletto, her father, is also presented without forgiveness in this production, as his overprotectiveness of Gilda leads to her fascination with the Duke. “Just because you say you love somebody doesn’t mean you know how to love them,” says Pelzig. “I don’t think he knows how to listen…I think he’s afraid to listen…She’s afraid to communicate with him about what’s going on in her life.”

But Gilda, McMillon suggests, still loves her father despite his flaws, ultimately deciding to sacrifice herself upon hearing her father’s revenge plot about to go awry. “I think it’s telling for a child to die for their parent, instead of what we see a lot in reverse…She has so much love for Rigoletto and even for the Duke, which is maybe a little naive of her because she sees in the quartet his true nature…She has only the ability to love people.”

Opera Philadelphia’s production will contain many parallels to real life, both visual and conceptual, and the most painful one might be Gilda’s insistence on seeing the good in people as her undoing, while the worst people get away with murder simply by virtue of their wealth and power—the Duke gets to cavort singing into the sunset, having suffered no consequences for his actions. “There’s not a single consequence. All he had was a great night,” says Blue.

A great night for the opera’s villain, but also surely for opera goers, who will be welcomed back to the Academy of Music with a well-deserved, all-time favorite.

You can get tickets for Verdi'sRigolettohere.Opera Philadelphia is presenting four performances at the Academy of Music—sung in Italian with English supertitles—Friday, April 29th at 8 PM, Sunday, May 1st at 2 PM, Friday, May 6th at 8 PM, and Sunday, May 8th at 2 PM.

John T.K. Scherch (JohnTK@wrti.org) shares the morning’s musical and other offerings weekdays on WRTI 90.1. Previously, he was the first new host on WBJC in Baltimore in nearly 20 years, hosting the evening, Sunday afternoon, and request programs, and he is also an alumnus of U92, the college radio station of West Virginia University and a consecutive national Station of the Year winner.