Karma is a vengeful mistress in Verdi’s dramatic ​Rigoletto​, Houston Grand Opera’s latest offering opening this month.

Written by Giuseppe Verdi in 1850 and based​ Le Roi s’amuse​ by Victor Hugo, the opera follows Rigoletto, a rather vile, hunchbacked court jester; Gilda, his beautiful and innocent daughter; and the Duke of Mantua, an extremely immoral, exceedingly powerful royal.

This HGO production features American baritone Brian Mulligan in his first turn in the title role, opposite Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz as the Duke of Mantua. Armenian soprano Mané Galoyan appears as Gilda. British bass David Shipley sings the role of the assassin Sparafucile, and American mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams is his sister and partner-in-crime Maddalena.

“It’s super dramatic,” says Reams, an alumni of Houston Grand Opera Studio. “There’s great harmony, it’s fast-paced and exciting.”

As for the story, it’s well, a lot. A serial womanizer, the Duke openly flaunts his latest sexual conquests, taking delight in publicly seducing married women in front of their humiliated husbands. And as his court jester, Rigoletto enthusiastically joins in mercilessly taunting the men.

Rigoletto keeps Gilda, his daughter, completely hidden in an effort to protect her from the Duke. He allows her to leave their house only to go to church. But then the Duke spots her at services and decided he must have her. He follows her home and sneaks inside. Naive and inexperienced, Gilda falls for the lug.

Back at court, Rigoletto goes too far in his jeers, and the Duke’s victims decide to strike back. The men may be powerless to stop the Duke, but an ugly, hunchbacked court jester? Him, they can hurt.

And they do. The husbands kidnap Gilda, who they mistakenly think is Rigoletto's mistress, and turn her over to the Duke, who promptly ravishes her. In retaliation, Rigoletto hires Sparafucile, an assassin, to kill the royal. Sparafucile’s plan includes using his sinister sister, Maddalena, to entice the Duke to visit their home, making him an easy target for the planned murder.

Knowing Gilda’s still in love with the Duke, Rigoletto takes her to watch Maddalena’s seduction of the villain, hoping to open her eyes to the depth of the man’s depravity. Instead Gilda willingly takes the Duke’s place as the intended victim. The curtain falls on Rigoletto with a dying Gilda in his arms and the Duke happily off to find his next quarry.

The whole affair is a complicated tragedy woven together by powerful musical performances. Indeed, a quartet in Act III, “Bella figlia dell’ amore,” with the Duke and Maddalena flirting inside the assassin's home, while Gilda and Rigoletto listen from outside, might be one of the most successful and powerful ensembles in all of opera. The four characters—the Duke lusting after the coquettish Maddalena, Gilda heartbroken that her lover is untrue, and Rigoletto in despair at his daughter’s suffering—each have their own melody which weaves in and out of the others to create a wonderfully rich and layered sound.

Reams sees her character Maddalena as a musical wild card, especially in the quartet. “She’s very much a catalyst, not just a bystander,” she explains.

Even so, modern audiences will likely stumble over Gilda’s rather inexplicable desire to protect the man who has just violently assaulted her and then jumped into another woman’s bed. Then again, it’s an opera—from 1850. Even if the storyline doesn’t quite hold up, the music certainly does.

Oct. 18-Nov 1. Tickets from $20. Wortham Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-228-6737. More info and tickets at houstongrandopera.org.

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