Live: N.C. Opera's Rigoletto Captures the Nuance—And Cruelty—Of Gendered Power Imbalances | Music
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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Live: N.C. Opera's Rigoletto Captures the Nuance—And Cruelty—Of Gendered Power Imbalances

Posted by on Wed, Jan 31, 2018 at 2:30 PM

click to enlarge Olivia Vote, Joseph Dennis, Malcom MacKenzie, Jacqueline Echols from North Carolina Opera’s Rigoletto - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ZIRKLE FOR NORTH CAROLINA OPERA.
  • Photo by Michael Zirkle for North Carolina Opera.
  • Olivia Vote, Joseph Dennis, Malcom MacKenzie, Jacqueline Echols from North Carolina Opera’s Rigoletto
N.C. Opera: Rigoletto
Memorial Auditorium, Raleigh
Friday, January 26, 2018

Even if you’re not an opera fan, you’ll probably still recognize “La Donna È Mobile,” the most well-known aria from Verdi’s Rigoletto. The people around me at N.C. Opera’s performance on Friday night perceptibly leaned forward in their seats as the debauched, inconstant Duke of Mantua (Joseph Dennis) sang it for the first time:

“Woman is fickle,
Like a feather in the wind
She changes her words
And her thoughts.”

In context, these words are ironic, even painful. But we have to get there first.

Rigoletto tells the story of a hunchbacked court jester of the same name (Malcolm MacKenzie) and his daughter, Gilda (Jacqueline Echols, in her third performance with N.C. Opera). Rigoletto is the jester for the Duke of Mantua, who uses his power mainly to sleep with any woman he wants. Rigoletto helps him out, distracting and mocking jealous husbands while the Duke takes his pick. In other words, Rigoletto is in on the joke—until he’s not.

In the wake of one of the Duke’s conquests, Rigoletto takes his mockery too far, provoking the woman’s elderly father. The father, Count Monterone (Adrian Smith), curses Rigoletto, who we learn has done everything he can to protect his own daughter from men like his boss.

From there, everything unravels. Rigoletto’s virginal daughter, Gilda, falls in love with the Duke, who sneaks into her home with a false name and promises of love. He takes her “honor,” then discards her, leaving her heartbroken.

A revenge plot fails, as the assassin Rigoletto has hired (Sparafucile, played by Soloman Howard) and his sister Maddalena (Olivia Vote) kill Gilda, who willingly sacrifices herself to save the indifferent Duke. Rigoletto only discovers the switch as he hears the first few lines of “La Donna È Mobile” sung in the distance. Stricken, he discovers that the wrapped-up body he’s preparing to throw into the river isn’t the Duke, but his daughter.

Over the course of the opera, Rigoletto goes from jovial, to terrified, to tender, vengeful, and desperate in quick succession. Malcolm MacKenzie embodied these shifting moods with a deep physicality, conveying Rigoletto’s comedy and sorrow with his body, as well as his voice. Rigoletto the jester practically throws himself into each new joke, loose-limbed like a rag doll. Then, in an instant, he’s replaced by Rigoletto the father, stunned by the implications of Monterone’s curse and crushed with fear for his daughter.

MacKenzie played the role with a deftness that seemed like it should be impossible to achieve with the large gestures required to reach to the back of an auditorium. He relayed the subtle difference between Rigoletto’s brash early jesting and his forced bravado as he frantically searches the Duke’s home for his daughter, as well as his hesitation and growing shame as he sits close-but-not-too-close when he finally finds her. And, of course, Mackenzie's voice was just as expressive. His rich baritone filled the room, rising over the chorus in the crowded palace scenes.

In contrast, Joseph Dennis gave the Duke the easy arrogance and casual cruelty of a man who never has to consider the price of anything. Dennis capably demonstrated that the Duke’s terrible treatment of women comes not from malice, but from his vast thoughtlessness. This lets him earn a few laughs from the audience (After meeting Gilda, he sings, “Her modesty and purity almost turn me to the path of virtue,” and Dennis delivered the line with a triumphant guilelessness), but it also underscores the great injustice of a woman like Gilda dying for a man like him.

Throughout the production, though, it was Jacqueline Echols’s Gilda who stole the show. In her aria, “Caro Nome,” she conveys Gilda’s sense of wonder at the experience of falling in love, her voice steady, bright, and clear; we believe the depth of her feeling, even as we know that the “dear name” she sings about is an alias. She’s equally convincing in her stunned shame after the Duke discards her and her grim acceptance as she prepares herself to die for him. Echols is the heart of the show, letting us feel the deeply uneven consequences women and powerful men pay for pleasure.

If all of this feels familiar—a woman suffering greatly as a result of a sexual experience that hardly registers as noteworthy for the man—well, it did to me, too. But that’s not because Rigoletto is “more relevant than ever,” to use a cliché that shows up in reviews of nearly every recent adaptation of a classic that tells the story of sexual exploitation. It’s because the issues it raises about power and sex are perennial. To peg a performance like this to #MeToo undermines the fact that artists, viewers, and yes, “fathers of daughters” like Rigoletto have all been exploring the consequences of the imbalance of sexual power for a very long time. And still, this imbalance persists.

That’s not to say nothing has changed. Verdi wrote Rigoletto carefully, changing the king in Victor Hugo’s Le Roi S’Amuse to a fictional duke in order to avoid censorship for critiquing power too strongly. Today, we can tell stories about the abuses of power more directly. Yet, this staging of a one-hundred-sixty-seven-year-old opera still gets to the heart of the problem, showing us who suffers the most when a man uses his power to violate sexual boundaries.

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