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Monday, September 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 70.0° F  Light Rain
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The tears of a clown
Madison Opera's Rigoletto peeks into a jester's soul

If you love Italian opera, you love Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto, and the Madison Opera's production on Nov. 17 (8 p.m.) and 19 (2:30 p.m.) at Overture Hall plans Rigoletto as Verdi meant it to be. The scenic design and costumes will stay true to the Renaissance setting of Francesco Maria Piave's libretto. Madison Opera directors Allan Naplan and John DeMain chose the actors not just for their pretty voices, but for their emotional connection to their roles.

"Rigoletto is a very accessible opera, and it has a variety of situations that we can relate to," says Naplan. "There's the love of a father for his daughter and the story of a young couple in love, although it's misguided love."

Rigoletto (baritone Guido LeBron) is a hunchbacked jester in the court of the philandering Duke of Mantua (tenor Stephen Costello). One day he goes too far with his jokes and jibes and, to his horror, gets cursed by an old nobleman. Rigoletto is bitter about his deformity and doesn't like his job, but he has one shining star in his life - his daughter Gilda (soprano Megan Monaghan). Knowing the roguish nature of the duke's men, Rigoletto tries to shield Gilda from them, but tragedy unfolds. Gilda falls in love with the duke and into the spider's web of the nobleman's curse.

Naplan, who has played the role of Marullo, the head courtier in Rigoletto, is familiar with the complexity of the opera's characters. "Rigoletto has to keep the face of the jester at great pains since he knows the duke's true character. He has to hurl insults at the courtiers and yet be tender toward Gilda and explode over her kidnapping by the duke's men."

LeBron, Monaghan and Costello have had much success in their roles. LeBron, an ex-jazz percussionist turned opera star, knows how to bring out underlying rhythms in mood, tempo and texture. Monaghan's voice is tenderly sweet, just right for the very high pianissimos required of Gilda. The duke can come across as a one-dimensional playboy who helps himself to other men's wives (shame on you, duke), but Costello's brilliant timbre and emotional content should reveal more within the role.

Based on Victor Hugo's play The King Takes His Amusement, Rigoletto premiered in Venice in 1851 and enjoyed instant success. Verdi's music is both visceral and sublime, and the duke's aria "La donna e mobile" will stay with you long after you leave the hall. Rigoletto has many layers, and it can beguile you into thinking that all is well when, in fact, disaster looms. To know what's really going on, listen to the orchestra. Verdi puts the truth of the matter right there.

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