Come As You Aria

Grand opera, like crime movies and modern tragedy, is largely peopled by sluts and scalawags. Big, blustery sins are committed and paid for, and the spectacle is thrilling. Often the innocent get mowed down in the process (usually as part of the naughty protagonist's punishment), but in the end, the ironies of destiny, human frailty and outright evil intertwine in baroque curlicues to punish the guilty. Central City Opera presents two hardy grand operas, Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto and Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe, along with one silly operetta, Sigmund Romberg's The New Moon. Each is strikingly staged, beautifully sung and as riddled with hubris, lust and greed as anyone could wish.

Musically speaking, Rigoletto is by far the greatest of the three offerings. Perhaps I'm reflecting familial prejudice in saying so, but the wonderful, lively staging of this grand melodrama brought to mind my Italian grandmother's penchant for opera. She was not an educated woman, but she had opinions about all the great opera singers of her day. In the Italy of her childhood, everybody went to the opera, rich and poor, and everybody was a critic--or so she implied to me. Watching Central City's production of Rigoletto, which is sung in English, as are all the company's operas, I suddenly saw why it meant so much to her and why my own mother (now in her eighties) to this day gets dewy-eyed when she speaks of Placido Domingo's voice.

Opera, after all, is not meant to be that elitist art form most of the great American companies make it out to be. It is absolutely geared to the common man: It deals in love, honor, revenge and all the sins listed above, and the darkest human impulses run right along with terrific melodies through the canon. The fine thing, then, about Central City Opera is its accessibility--and its high standards for young singers.

Central City serves as a training ground for budding singers (known as the "apprentices") and also as a place for those singers who have already embarked on impressive careers but have not yet reached stardom to gain further experience (it can take as long as ten years for opera singers to reach the peak of their abilities). Standing in line or seated in the auditorium, it was a treat to eavesdrop on various patrons' opinions about who the greatest singers were of the season. Many of those who attend, particularly older people, have come many times before. They like the thrill of a great aria and an exuberant tale of woe. So did my grandmother, and so do I.

Rigoletto is based on Victor Hugo's angry play Le Roi s'amuse (Disney wasn't the first to make a musical of a Hugo story, though Verdi and lyricist Francesco Piave had more taste than to turn a tragedy into a comedy). It concerns a Renaissance-era Italian duke and his hunchbacked jester, Rigoletto, who, for obvious reasons, hates everybody except his closely guarded daughter, Gilda. The jester mocks the husbands of the women the licentious duke seduces, until one night a grieving father bursts in and denounces the duke for having dishonored his young daughter. When Rigoletto mocks the father and threatens the old man with prison for seditiously attacking the duke, the tormented man lays a "father's curse" on Rigoletto. And curses are taken very, very seriously in Italian opera.

First thing you know, the courtiers decide to punish the jester and abduct the young woman he guards, thinking the girl is the hunchback's mistress. Meanwhile, lovely Gilda has fallen for the duke, who has disguised himself as a poor student. When the courtiers grab her and take her to the palace, the lecherous monarch has his wicked way with her. It's not crystal clear whether it's seduction or rape, but the girl feels herself dishonored. Her father swears vengeance on the miscreant duke and hires an assassin. But revenge is not to be his, and tragedy ensues. Rigoletto is horribly punished, but the monstrous duke gets off scot-free.

Stephen Kechulius as Rigoletto is as skilled an actor as he is a singer. The young man carries age as if he's earned it, and when he contemplates the curse laid on his head or mourns his daughter's death, he moves us as much with his passion as with his full, round baritone. Lovely soprano Kathryn Gamberoni as Gilda projects innocence and affection with admirable clarity, and Adam Klein's nasty duke is both insidious and masterful--a real thrill to hear. But the most impressive actress of the whole season is young mezzo-soprano Jessie Raven, an apprentice who plays Maddalena, the sister of the assassin. Tall, striking and gutsy, she delivers power behind every note. Best of all from a theatrical point of view, she beams with stage presence--not only does she have a rich, gorgeous voice, but you can't take your eyes off her. She makes one mighty wench.

Lucky for us, Raven plays a slut again in the featherweight musical The New Moon, and it's a funnier, fuller role. Though this swashbuckler is as inane as musicals get and suffers from too many inconsistent performances, the show boasts absolutely delightful sets by Michael Anania and a couple of fabulous tunes. The showstopper in this case is "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise," sung with fierce energy by tenor Richard Troxell as the woman-hating Phillipe. The words are all about the faithlessness of women, and it would be more appealing if the whole show, involving a shipboard mutiny, mass marriages and the founding of a new colony in the Virgin Islands, weren't so misogynistic. Love is thwarted almost to the end--though, this being a musical comedy, everybody gets his or hers eventually.

The night I saw New Moon, there were far too many glitches--lines garbled, objects dropped, and a lot of inept stage combat. Only Raven and Dean Anthony as Alexander, the groom to rebellious French aristocrat Robert, seemed to get the comic timing right. Richard Bryne (as Robert) may be more suited to grand than comic opera, and though Diane Alexander (Marianne, his love interest in the New World) has a sterling voice, she doesn't seem to get comedy, either. The full company songs are splendid, as are the occasional tableaux (everybody freezing in a perfect picture). But the lasting impression is one of uneven stagecraft.

Fortunately, the flawed acting technique is confined to New Moon. The best acting of the Central City season belongs to the company's signature piece, The Ballad of Baby Doe. Commissioned by the Central City Opera Association in 1953, this show dishes up a sordid story of pride, self-indulgence, power-grabbing and adultery disguised as significant history--and however overblown the sentiments might be in a straight drama, the music makes it all work in the opera.

Powerful mining millionaire Horace Tabor dumps Augusta, his wife of 27 years, for the childlike Baby Doe, a woman who has just jettisoned her own husband because she's attracted to Tabor's wealth and power. President Chester Arthur attends the wedding when Tabor is appointed to the Senate, and all the Washington wives have to be nice to Baby Doe. But back home in Colorado, the wives don't forgive so readily, and Baby and Horace are thrown back on their own resources, socially speaking. Baby, meanwhile, has actually fallen in love with Horace, who then loses all his money staying stubbornly true to silver when everyone else decides to go on the gold standard. He dies a broken man, and Baby is left to live out her life in abject poverty. In real life, she froze to death in a shack next to the last thing she owned, the Matchless Mine, her two daughters having deserted her. That grotesque death is left out of this story, but this being grand opera, everybody gets his and hers eventually.

The company has to build some sympathy for these acquisitive characters, or we wouldn't care what happened to them. And there are several very moving moments in the show. The first comes when Augusta discovers a pair of gloves intended for Baby in her husband's drawer, reads the note, then compares the dainty fingers of the glove to her own hardened hands. Women of her era feared desertion more than death--the world constructed by males ensured she would have no real life at all as a divorcee. Horace makes an equally pitiable sight when he finally loses everything and searches for some vestige of his old dignity in the Denver Opera House that was built with his money. And when Baby sings her last aria, the music soars above the ghastliness of her fate--and of the choices she's made.

Jan Grissom is perfect in the title role--baby-faced, beautiful, and endowed with a lovely, crystalline voice. She is a delightful actress who makes undeniable magic with baritone Brian Steele as Tabor; the sexual tension is persuasive. The most notable acting performance in the production, though, comes from mezzo-soprano Dana Krueger as the tormented, tough old Augusta. Her voice, not as powerful as Grissom's, doesn't always penetrate the orchestra. But she, too, is a magnetic presence, and because Augusta takes some responsibility for her fate, Krueger can project greater nobility than the other characters.

Given the melodramatic nature of the story, great care needs to be--and has been--taken to avoid posturing and pretense in the staging. Anania's marvelous sets create exactly the right atmosphere, and what results is exciting theater, made all the more satisfying by its presence in a genuine nineteenth-century Colorado mountain opera house. Like Rigoletto, Baby Doe is highly accessible, meant for the people, and full of superb sound and furious feeling.

Central City Opera, through August 11 at the Central City Opera House, 200 Eureka Street, Central City, 292-6700.

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