The Kentucky Opera presents “Rigoletto” Feb. 15 and 17. | Courtesy of Kentucky Opera

The climax of Kentucky Opera’s season comes this weekend with “Rigoletto,” which started it all for the composer who some called the King of Opera.

But Giuseppe Verdi wasn’t always king. He composed 15 moderately successful operas before coming to “Rigoletto.” But the composer knew that this opera was going to be a great one, with a truly tragic story and all the beautiful music that audiences would adore.

But he wasn’t taking any chances.

So sure was Verdi of the aria “La Donna e Mobile” (“Woman is Fickle”), to be sung by the playboy Duke of Mantua in the third act, that Verdi withheld the music for that song from the cast and orchestra until the eve of the premiere in Venice. The composer didn’t wish to give a rival any opportunity to steal his tune. (And some would have.)

The precaution worked, and amid a shower of brilliant melodies throughout the opera, “La Donna e Mobile” rang through the Teatro de Fenice to take a place as one of opera’s most loved arias.

That was in 1851. Friday and Sunday, Feb. 15 and 17, in the Brown Theatre, Kentucky Opera presents Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” and John Irvin will take the role of the Duke of Mantua — becoming the latest in a line of thousands of star tenors to sing the famous role.

“It does make you happy to go out on stage and sing such recognizable music, and you know it’s a big show-off piece,” says Irwin. “If you can do it well, it’s really something that could make people go, ‘Wow!’”

Which the near sold-out audiences in the Brown will be dying to do. From its debut, “Rigoletto” has captured the imagination of opera lovers, who stayed with Verdi through succeeding triumphs of “La Traviata,” “Aida,” “Otello” and all the rest.

Now, as then, audiences hang on the high drama and live through the wondrous Verdi melodies. And Irvin’s Duke of Mantua has his share of both.

“The opera has some of the most memorable melodies in all the genre,” says Irvin. “And the character of the Duke is complex. Tenors often sing the role of a lover, but there’s something … something about the Duke.”

And it’s not all good. As the story develops, the other characters of “Rigoletto” react to the situations they find themselves in and force the coming tragedy upon themselves. Rigoletto, the bitter jester, is sung by baritone Anthony Clark Evans, and Gilda, Rigoletto’s beautiful but innocent daughter, is played by soprano Mané Galoyan. Elizabeth Batton is Maddalena and David Leigh sings the scurrilous Sparafucile, the paid murderer who murders the wrong person.

With one I may trifle and play

John Irvin plays the Duke of Mantua | Photo by Devon Cass

It all begins with the Duke, who is the quintessential rich and handsome playboy, singing of the newest quest he’s set his roving eye upon — a beauty named Gilda he’s just spied, “Questa o quella” — amid the throng.

Mid the fair throng that sparkle around me,
not one o’er my heart holds sway …

All alike may attract, each in turn may please;
Now with one I may trifle and play,
Then another may sport with and tease.

The role of the Duke has been played many ways. The tenor Enrico Caruso cast his character as a carefree man of conquest. And Luciano Pavarotti has a twinkle in his eye.

But Irvin sees a darker side, “the villainous aspect of it,” he says. “That he’s not carefree, but that he’s more cynical, more conniving. That he sees the people around him as almost disposable.”

What the Duke doesn’t know is the beautiful maiden he has set his eye upon is the daughter of Rigoletto, the Duke’s own court jester. And Rigoletto doesn’t know it either — yet.

Gilda sees only love ahead. When the Duke disguises himself as a student, she falls completely in love. Totally naïve to the notion she is another of the Duke’s conquests. And might not care that she is.

‘Caro Nome’ — Every thought to thee will fly

Mané Galoyan plays Gilda | Courtesy

Irvin finds the Duke’s dark character revealed in the Act II aria “Parmi Veder le Lagrime” (“Each Tear that Falls”). The Duke tells Gilda he is so sympathetic with each of her tears falling. But he’s really just sorry he’s missed a chance at her.

And, of course, the problem with all this is you just know the Duke is going to skate unscathed.

Which makes the role of Gilda a bit difficult for soprano Mané Galoyan.

“Women today are strong, and it is very hard to identify with Gilda being so trapped,” says Galoyan, talking about her role in a Kentucky Opera preview aired on WUOL-FM’s “Lunch and Listen.” “My approach is to make Gilda a little more fiery, not one of the mellow ones.”

But it is no problem for the soprano to stay true to the music, and Galoyan as Gilda lilts through an achingly fragile “Caro Nome.”

Every thought to thee will fly.
Life for thee alone is dear.
Thine shall be my parting sigh.

All of which might have worked out as a simply a bad heartbreak for Gilda. Except there’s Rigoletto, the loving but not tender father who has, all his life, sought to protect his daughter — now only to find her on the verge of giving herself to the Duke, a man he has always resented.

Rigoletto hates himself for playing the court jester, providing laughs for the Duke and his worthless pals. Rigoletto has even participated in the Duke’s scheming to chase this woman or that. But now, his daughter!

Opera Noir

So all the seeds are sown for a darker turn to the tale. Rigoletto hires an assassin to murder the Duke. And what could go wrong goes tragically wrong.

Today, these kinds of opera plots seem so impossible. A story set way back even centuries before Verdi’s time. With dukes and court jesters and innocent maidens and mistaken identity. The sister of the assassin begins as an accomplice but falls for the duke, herself. Plus characters in disguise, singing one thing in one room, while others plot something else on the other side of a wall.

All that seems at first glance so absurd.

But that’s just the way the 19th century composers did it. Plots were cast in far away places and in the misty long ago — with lots of lust and plenty of blood spilled. The composers didn’t often write contemporary drama about contemporary people. They were dodging church scolds always on guard against heresy.

And, in Verdi’s Venice, they wrote around Austrian censors ever on the lookout for political dissent. Verdi and librettist Francesco Piave drew the “Rigoletto” story from the drama “Le Roi s’amuse,” by that known dissenter Victor Hugo.

(Below is soprano Mané Galoyan singing another aria in an international competition.)

With just a little imagination, the “Rigoletto” plot could be rethought as perfect film noir. Things go wrong and people make bad decisions and love is involved and somebody gets shot. John Garfield and Lana Turner falling beyond moral boundaries in “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Or “Double Indemnity,” where good guy Fred MacMurray is turned wrong by treacherous Barbara Stanwyck.

Opera is like that.

When Gilda is murdered instead of the Duke, it’s a bad end that no one could see coming. But should have.

“Verdi does such an amazing job of portraying emotions, and for me emotions are timeless,” says Irvin. “Human relationships are timeless, and it doesn’t matter what costume you put on, they always shine through the superficiality of the time it’s set in.”

Plus the singing.

Kentucky Opera will present “Rigoletto” in Italian, with English subtitles projected. But one won’t need the words to understand the quartet in Act III. Verdi crafts the music for four, divided by emotions — with the Duke and Maddelena all wrapped up in romantic coquetry on one side of a wall, and heart-broken Gilda and her vengeful father Rigoletto on the other. They weave that into a quartet.

One could follow that mix to the tragedy. Or, listen more intently to hear how Verdi constructs the music.

Or both. Verdi knew “Rigoletto” had it all.

Kathleen Belcher directs “Rigoletto,” with Roberto Kalb conducting the orchestra. Tickets start at $20, though seats may not remain at all price levels. The Friday, Feb. 15, performance is at 8 p.m., and the Sunday, Feb. 17, show is at 2 p.m. at the Brown Theatre.

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