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Annapolis Opera combines anniversary notes in memorable 'Rigoletto'

As the centerpiece of its 40th anniversary season — and in celebration of the 200th anniversary of composer Giuseppe Verdi's birth — the Annapolis Opera this month presented a memorable production of "Rigoletto."

The effort was filled with celebratory notes, including the 30th anniversary of artistic director Ronald J. Gretz's relationship with Annapolis Opera. During his time with the company, he produced "Rigoletto" once before, in 2000, winning praise for a show that was "distinguished on all levels," according to local critics.

The 2013 version merits similar praise. The young cast featured returning favorites and newer members building solid reputations. A highlight was the Annapolis Opera chorus. Annapolis Symphony Orchestra members, conducted by Gretz, sensitively accompanied the singers, delivering Verdi's magnificent work from the first menacing notes to the final somber chords.

Verdi's masterwork tells the story of hunchbacked court jester Rigoletto, who is tricked into helping courtiers kidnap his beloved daughter so the lecherous Duke of Mantua can seduce her. Verdi based his opera on Victor Hugo's 1832 play "Le roi s'amuse" ("The King Amuses Himself"), relating incidents from the life of King Francis I of France, a libertine who seduced women of the court as well as peasant women. Verdi changed Francis I to the fictional Duke of Mantua.

In Annapolis Opera's production, baritone Chad Armstrong gave Rigoletto a powerful voice of warm resonance, conveying Rigoletto's despair in a strange encounter with killer-for-hire Sparafucile, then tenderness in a father-daughter duet with Gilda.

Rigoletto must convey a range of emotions, from self-loathing to revenge to profound grief, and Armstrong pulls it off well, though his performance might have become even more compelling with a bit more nuance in poignant passages.

Rolando Sanz, in the prized tenor role of the Duke of Mantua, displayed admirable portamento in "Questa e quella" ("This woman or that") and surprising tenderness in his own duet with Gilda. His rendition of "La donna e mobile" ("Women are fickle") was diminished slightly by a missed high note, but his later pieces were well sung.

Soprano Megan Hart, who impressed as Juliet in last season's "Romeo and Juliet," offered a convincing Gilda, conveying both innocence and passion. Hart's agile soprano was beautifully suited to Gilda's "Caro nome" ("Dear name") — delivered with an endearing charm and exemplary technique. Hart brought a touching innocence to her final aria as her character, near death, pleads for forgiveness from her father.

Resonant bass Liam Moran delivered a commanding Sparafucile, a performance made especially striking by its spare, unemotional portrayal, and contralto Jennifer Hines was a seductively attractive Maddalena, sister of Sparafucile, who lures male victims to her brother's knife.

Baritone Daniel Klein forcefully sang the pivotal role of Count Monterone, conveying a father's outrage and delivering his famous curse with intensity.

Rigoletto's quartet, "Bella figlia dell'amore," has recently gained renewed fame through the current film, "Quartet," starring Dame Maggie Smith. The quartet is sung by Gilda, sadly aware of the Duke's courting of Maddalena, who exults under his spell while Rigoletto expresses vengeance. In Annapolis Opera's staging, the singers' positioning contributed to difficulty hearing all parts adequately, while some voices overwhelmed others.

But any shortcomings were forgotten in the final drama at midnight, as Rigoletto arrives triumphantly to claim the body of the Duke — only to realize that he is carrying the corpse of another. He opens the sack to discover a near-lifeless Gilda, and a most touching ethereal duet is sung by daughter and father. This moment was fully realized by Hart and Armstrong with drama and torment as a father cries, "Ah, la Maledizione!"

Behind the scenes, the company did its usual first-rate work, most notably costume designer Lorraine vom Saal and set designer Anne Linquist.

Overall, the performance leaves you wanting more from this company, and more you shall have: Next on tap for the Annapolis Opera is the 25th annual Vocal Competition, offered free to the public at Maryland Hall, 801 Chase St. in Annapolis. The semifinals will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 27, with a finals concert at 3 p.m. April 28.

It's always a highlight to hear the voices that will grace local stages in the years to come. For more details, go to http://www.annapolisopera.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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