Review: What's the Point of Opera in the Heights's Rigoletto?

The Houston Grand Opera produced Verdi's classic last year. Do we really need another production so soon?

By Sydney Boyd September 29, 2014

Cast photo

Sept 26–Oct 5
Lambert Hall
1703 Heights Blvd.

The first time I saw an opera at Lambert Hall almost three years ago, I was convinced that Opera in the Heights was not only a special company, but also a crucial alternative in the city to Houston Grand Opera. The reliably enthusiastic artistic director and conductor Enrique Carreón-Robledo had just begun his tenure, and the small opera company seemed poised to grow and flourish in its own niche. 

But I have begun to wonder what that niche is. OH opened their 2014-2015 season Friday night with Giuseppe Verdi’s timelessly popular Rigoletto. But HGO staged Rigoletto just last year (as well as Bizet’s Carmen, with which OH will end this season in March), and I can only assume that this is an unfortunate scheduling coincidence for a company that is trying to set itself apart from the big fancy show downtown. The two companies resist a fair comparison, given the difference in budget at the very least, but it was hard not to recall the remarkable performance Stephen Costello gave as the Duke of Mantua in HGO’s production last winter.

Rigoletto is a story about buffoonery, lust, and sacrifice, all under the cloud of a fateful curse. At a ball, the court jester Rigoletto mocks Count Monterone, who has come to confront the Duke of Mantua for seducing his daughter. Count Monterone fatefully lays a father’s curse on Rigoletto’s head. That evening Rigoletto returns to his own innocent daughter, the beautiful Gilda, whom he has hidden from the public except for allowing her to attend church. But the Duke follows her home from church, bribes her maid, and secretly meets Gilda anyway, and Gilda falls in love with him. After the Duke leaves Gilda, trouble-making courtiers abduct Gilda, believing her to be Rigoletto’s mistress, and Rigoletto begins to lose his mind. Monterone’s curse is no trifle—the brilliantly composed third act of this opera never fails to send shivers through me.

Octavio Moreno (baritone) as Rigoletto and Erin Kenneavy (soprano) as Gilda (Ruby Cast)

Mexican baritone Octavio Moreno, who sings the title role in the Ruby Cast, has a voice that embodies deep masculinity. It is sharp and clear, but his voice doesn’t cut—it melts across the air. His duets with soprano Erin Kenneavy (who sings the role of Gilda in both casts) showed remarkable control. Making a role and an OH debut, Kenneavy exquisitely captured Gilda’s beautiful naïveté and innocence. She was pitch-perfect and technically impressive, but she fell short facing the difficult series of concentrated crescendos and decrescendos at the end of the first act: her voice is at its best in a forte.

In addition to Moreno, OH pulled together an impressive cast of bass singers. Bass Nathan Stark in the role of Sparafucile, and bass-baritone Kyle Albertson, in the role of Monterone, matched the technically excellent Moreno. But tenor Dane Suarez, in the steamy role of the Duke of Mantua, struggled to keep up technically and musically—his opening in act one was just behind the orchestra, and he never caught up. Several of his long solo interludes wandered down in pitch—a painful event to recover from once the orchestra joined in again.

In past seasons OH has tried some adventurous stagings—the post-apocalyptic Macbeth that featured neon purple, lime, and yellow-wigged witches, shopping carts, and barbed wire comes to mind—but this production was a traditional period piece. The set, lit in hazy purple, was oriented by an imposing tree on one side that extended winding vines of decay up the staircase and around doorways. This is also the most reserved conducting I’ve seen from Carreón-Robledo. Still, the compact orchestra performed with artistic reliability and moving fervor that is particularly impressive given its size—a mere twenty-two musicians by my count.

In recent years, it seemed like OH had begun setting itself apart by celebrating the bel canto tradition—where else could I have seen Rossini’s four-hour Otello uncut? With the exception of Mozart’s more rarely performed La clemenza di Tito, this season is shifting the company back into undistinguished territory. There has also been a shift in staff: Allison Hartzell has, somewhat abruptly, taken over this month as executive director. She replaces Stephanie Helms, who was hired just this past March after a yearlong interregnum. Helms had expressed promising vision for the company in an interview with Houstonia. But it takes time to cultivate vision.

What if OH capitalized on its strengths, starting with its size and the intimate setting? Imagine Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts in that space. Or what about chamber operas: I can’t help but remember how the Wortham swallowed up Benjamin Britten’s Rape of Lucretia. Lambert Hall would be just the right size. Something like Britten might not sell as many tickets, but it would set the company apart in a way that this Rigolettodid not.

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