Utah Opera paints a grim world in Verdi’s powerful “Rigoletto”

Wed Mar 15, 2023 at 6:58 am
By Rick Mortensen
Scott Hendricks in the title role and Jasmine Habersham as his daughter Gilda in Utah Opera’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto. Photo: Dana Sohm.

As the fatalistic strains of Verdi’s Prelude to Rigoletto wafted out of the orchestra pit, a spotlight shone on the hunched, tortured title character on a bare, dark stage. A few seconds later, an upstage spotlight shone on the opera’s villain, the Duke of Mantua, ordering his henchman to stab a third man, who crumpled as the blade enters his torso.

The grisly pantomime set the tone for Utah Opera’s production of Verdi’s grim tragedy, which combined Mozart’s Don Giovanni with Puccini’s Il Tabarro — fusing the enlightenment moralism of the former with the gritty verismo of the latter.

Director Stephanie Havey, like most of the cast, was making her Utah Opera debut. She created a powerful production that plumbed the psychological and moral depths of the characters while building a rough, cynical world that revolved around the lascivious desires of the corrupt Duke. The sets and costumes stayed faithful to the original, which premiered in 1851 and was set in a 16th century court.

Havey set the power dynamics in her frenetic staging of the opening scene, with Rigoletto, the hunchbacked court jester helping the Duke whisk a female courtier away and then leading the other courtiers in mocking the cuckolded husband. It became clear that Rigoletto’s job was both to facilitate the Duke’s sexual conquests—most of which bordered on assaults—and then to absorb the anger of their husbands and fathers.

With his long blonde hair, high cheekbones, and cheerful, youthful bearing, Matthew White’s youthful portrayal of the dastardly Duke suggested more of a privileged fraternity president than a world-wise libertine. In his company debut, White’s light, guileless tenor had several sublime moments in both his high and low registers, yet his singing lacked power, and at times, he seemed to be forcing it to be heard above the orchestra. White’s best vocal moments were his love duets with Jasmine Habersham as Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda and with Hannah Ludwig as the temptress Maddalena, where he blended well with both.

The love duets were also some of the best dramatic moments, with the couples displaying clear chemistry. Havey’s staging of both duets, and the way the couples intertwined, accentuated the differences between the two relationships; the overt sexuality of the Duke’s interaction with Maddalena contrasting with the chaste, courtly interaction with Gilda.   

Habersham’s clear, bright soprano accentuated her character’s purity and innocence, while developing a more sensual quality in “Caro nome,” Gilda’s aria immediately after her first encounter with the Duke. Her expressive phrasing and vocal ornaments reflected her character’s awakened feelings.

Vocal versatility characterized Scott Hendricks’ portrayal of Rigoletto. Within the same scene, his voice could sound sardonic, menacing, and plaintive. It was particularly affecting as he pled desperately with the courtiers to release his daughter, the high register of his baritone range dripping with pathos. Then, when they released her, he switched back to a mocking and cynical tone, trying to show that he was not offended by their ”joke” of kidnapping her.

Kevin Thompson contributed an impressive performance  as the hit man Sparafucile. From the moment he introduced himself in the first act, his rich, powerful bass voice commanded attention, and it filled the hall. His clear tone, flawless intonation and seamless melodic lines appeared effortless, as did the menace in his voice as he coolly carried out the murders he was paid to perform.

Ludwig impressed as Maddalena, Sparafucile’s sister and partner in crime. Her powerful mezzo-soprano slipped from earthy and seductive in her scene with the Duke, to forceful and adamant in her scene with Sparafucile as she argued about who they should kill to fulfill Sparafucile’s contract.

Steven C. Kemp’s sparse yet functional sets served their purpose and added to the drama. A low-ceilinged box served as Gilda’s room in Act I and then Sparafucile’s work room; the crucifix on the wall replaced by various knives and daggers. In both cases, the cramped quarters reflected the privacy and secrecy of their occupant’s inner lives. In Gilda’s case, it reflected the fact that Rigoletto had hid her away from the world, and for Sparafucile it reflected his secret murders-for-hire.

Under the baton of conductor Joseph Colaneri, making his Utah Opera debut, the orchestra provided a flawless and musically sensitive backdrop to the action on stage.      

Utah Opera’s Rigoletto continues at the Capital Theatre through March 19. utahopera.org


Utah Opera announced its 2023-24 season on Tuesday. The company will open its season with Puccini’s La bohème, running October 7-15, followed by Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince (January 20-28, 2024). Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro is next from March 9-17 and the season closes with Massenet’s Thaïs with Nicole Heaston as the title temptress (May 4-12).

Subscriptions are now available with individual tickets going on sale August 1. utahopera.org

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