La maledizione. The Curse.

One glance at the working title and the Church was immediately unnerved. Superstition was primitive and godless. Librettist Francesco Maria Piave’s outline, a reworked setting of an incendiary play by Victor Hugo sharply critical of diehard monarchists, sealed the censors’ judgement. Repugnant, immoral and obscene, the occupying Habsburg authorities ruled. Barring cuts and rewrites, the opera would not be permitted to open in Venice as scheduled in the spring of 1851.

Verdi fumed, frustrated and offended, though hardly surprised. Less than six months earlier he had waged a similar battle with senior clerics, their opposition bolstered by the detested Austrian culture police, during pre-production plans for Stiffelio. With the irascible maestro adamantly refusing to alter a single page of his latest manuscript, Piave, a genius at conciliation, set to work quietly behind the scenes. Compromises were negotiated. Verdi, pragmatic showman to the end, was placated. In March, Rigoletto, as the piece was renamed, premiered at La Fenice to thunderous public acclaim. Nothing could have pleased the guardians of the old order less.

Over a century and half later, the uproar sparked by Rigoletto has yet to subside. Verdi’s twisted portrait of the cynical jester struggling to shield his daughter from a pernicious duke still overwhelms — cutting, caustic, perverse — a timeless tale for a new era when catharsis has become an illusion and beauty, a battered dream.

Reviving its controversial ENO co-production first presented in 2011 to decidedly mixed reviews, the Canadian Opera Company preserves director Christopher Alden’s unblinking vision of institutionalized corruption in all its graphic detail, brashly reprising a gripping, unsparing Rigoletto, emotionally intense, theatrically sweeping.

Centering Verdi’s lurid panorama of sex and violence in an exclusive Victorian men’s club, Alden packs the expansive Four Seasons Centre stage with menace, literally drawing aside the veil on limitless wealth and influence to reveal the ugly truth beyond. Power breeds entitlement. Status is a weapon. Cocooned in a shuttered bastion of male privilege, the Duke of Mantua holds court, head hedonist in casual games of conquest, his fellow players a repellent assortment of social parasites. It is a vivid rendering, this private playground, all rich leather and velvet and glowing white linen. The theatrical tension is palpable, a merging of starched costumed period values subsumed by moments of savage ferocity.

A nobleman’s daughter is despoiled.

A duke’s wife is marked for future sport.

A vengeful father is hanged.

An innocent young woman is kidnapped.

Idle playthings consumed like bottles of champagne beneath a spectacular baronial ceiling accented with gold.

#MeToo. #TimesUp. Alden’s Rigoletto rings with purpose, an astonishingly timely declaration given the age of the production design, unchanged since its premiere at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2000. The resonance, the mirroring of here and now, is as potent as it is prescient. Today’s enraged cries to end harassment may come too late for Gilda, the lost child Rigoletto cannot protect, seduced, abandoned, senselessly slaughtered; for The Duke of Monterone’s daughter, assaulted, driven mad; for all the Duke of Mantua’s targets. But Verdi was determined. If the predator were to go unpunished, as the composer’s instinct for verismo demanded, the villain would at least be unmasked. His victim’s voices echo through Alden’s staging, long and loud, striking at the heart.

Reality. Surreality. Dream. Nightmare. Scenes flow into one another in an unbroken stream of stunned consciousness. Sleep abounds in this fevered Rigoletto, overcoming virtually every character at one time or another, the entire chorus included. Brutality, as contemporary mental health specialists warn, has a way of blurring the senses, experience registered but only vaguely processed. Freeze frames, slow motion, a terrifying, preternatural thunderstorm — Alden’s staging plumbs the murkiest reaches of human psychology. Quel vecchio maledivami!… Tai pensiero perché conturba ognor la mente mia? (“The old man cursed me!… Why should this thought prey so on my mind?”), agonizes Rigoletto, fighting to maintain a grip on his sanity in the wake of Count Monterone’s infamous vengeful hex. Verdi supplies no answers. Alden’s mise-en-scène runs deep, dark and dense. The theatrical dissonance is relentless. And utterly exhausting. A moment of respite would not be out of order.

Rigoletto occupies Verdi’s middle period, a time of daring compositional experiments. Setting his sights on the totality of the work, the stream of narrative, the raging course of emotion, the by-now seasoned veteran with almost half his eventual operatic output behind him focused on the construction of a revitalized form of musical expression. Breaking down the traditional divisions between solos and recitatives, Verdi concentrated on developing more accessible sequences of scena, moments of heated drama, passionate and arresting. Out went the old inflexible, endlessly repetitive structures of bel canto. Verdi’s score for Rigoletto was nothing less than revolutionary. Intimate duets drew the action together. Arias, though still employed sparingly to show-stopping effect, were largely transformed into ariosos. Recits became showpieces, less opportunities for exposition, more crisp, crackling assertions of feeling.

Leading an expansive Canadian Opera Company Orchestra complete with prelude-purposed banda, conductor Stephen Lord scrupulously illuminates Verdi’s brilliant tinta musicale, a glorious, overarching spectrum of sonic colour often strikingly opposed to Rigoletto’s otherwise sunless atmosphere. Tempi, however, are a touch languorous, orchestral attack somewhat withheld.

Singing the title role, baritone Roland Wood anchors this stormy Rigoletto with a fine, closely observed portrayal of the tortured hunchback. Navigating the tricky twists and turns of Verdi’s Pari siamo (“We are two of a kind”), an extended internal monologue, almost Shakespearean in its fusion of vernacular and poetry, Wood delivers a profoundly masterful rendition of the great operatic centrepiece. Pathos and courage are resoundingly joined.

Soprano Anna Christy appears as Rigoletto’s cherished daughter, Gilda, movingly encapsulating all the helpless anguish of a neglected child, her bright, crystalline instrument charged with sadness and desperation, love and confusion. Her Caro nome (“Beloved name”), an irresistible anthem to infatuation, quite deservedly ignites an explosion of cheers from the audience.

Tenor Stephen Costello turns in a well-gauged, deceptively insouciant performance as the Duke of Mantua. La donna è mobile (“Women are fickle”), the blockbuster aria Verdi zealously withheld until minutes before Rigoletto’s opening night curtain fearing it would be pirated, invariably thrills. Costello makes the piece his own.

John Kriter and Bruno Roy are the Count’s despicable lackeys, Borsa and Marullo. Neil Craighead and Lauren Eberwein are a hot-blooded Count and Countess Ceprano. Robert Pomakov is a pitiable Monterone. Megan Latham is Gilda’s falsely faithful minder, Giovanna. Goderdzi Janelidze and Carolyn Sproule are a chilling pair of ruthless villains, the psychotic assassin Sparafucile and his equally deranged sister, Maddalena.

Singing with great energy and robust harmony, the men of the Canadian Opera Company Chorus gift us with a spine-tingling series of collective appearances, a churning, unpredictable troop of debauched club-dwelling deplorables.

Rigoletto, currently on view until late February, is a highly affective piece of music theatre, provocative and stirring, but not without its minor shortcomings. The COC has some uneven ground to level before it can deliver a first-class masterpiece. Applause, however, should not be withheld.

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Photo: Anna Christy as Gilda, Roland Wood as Rigoletto, Michael Cooper 2018