The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has an impressive history of presenting new operas, exemplified this year by the world premiere of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones. But the company is also known for fresh but not obtrusive stagings of repertory staples. The 2019 season included two such works, with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro faring better than Verdi’s Rigoletto.

The veteran director Mark Lamos telegraphed during the overture that his staging of the Mozart opera would be a fast-paced one: he brought out in rapid succession all the characters and offered a quick glimpse of what each would do during the succeeding three hours. The staging did indeed have plenty of spirit—a bit too much at times, as when the opera’s senior citizens (Marcellina, Don Bartolo, and Don Basilio) did silly dances during rhythmically lively music or when Basilio (the music master) pretended to conduct music amidst the Act III wedding festivities.

Designed by Paul Steinberg, the sets consisted substantially of blow-ups of details that might have come from paintings by Fragonard (acknowledged in the program book as an inspiration). This is hardly the first time the artist has been associated with an eighteenth-century opera, but the approach here was novel, at least to me. Especially striking was a representation of a woman’s bare chest pierced by an arrow, presumably supplied by Cupid. More mundane, but also engaging, were the open closets in Act I, chock full of everything from luggage to wearing apparel and more.

Also an asset, if an idiosyncratic one, were the highly original costumes designed by Constance Hoffman. These costumes took the eighteenth century as a point of departure—and depart they did, in a most colorful way. Among the wackiest was one for Susanna that made her appear slightly birdlike; Bartolo looked as if he badly needed a comb.

The well-balanced cast (seen on June 19) was dominated by attractive young singers, with not a sour voice in the lot. Monica Dewey was especially fine as Susanna, singing with captivating lyricism and coloring words meaningfully. (I was glad when she finally removed her unflattering maid’s cap.) She was excellently partnered by the resourceful, robustly sung Figaro of Aubrey Allicock. Samantha Gossard was a vibrant, irrepressible Cherubino.

Theo Hoffman and Susanna Biller sang handsomely as the Count and Countess, though he sounded underpowered at would-be commanding moments, and more fullness of tone would have been welcome from her too. John McVeigh and MaryAnn McCormick represented luxury casting as Basilio and Marcellina but were not allowed their arias, and Nathan Stark was a strong Bartolo. Christopher Allen’s conducting was solid but needed more sparkle. Unfortunately, the production followed the Moberly-Raeburn reordering of Act III (from 1965), which, in an attempt to remedy a perceived structural problem of a minor nature, ends up spoiling the act’s overall architecture.

Rigoletto also had an able cast, especially in its title role. As a Verdi baritone, Roland Wood is the genuine article and was in tremendous voice (on June 20), producing a sound that could scarcely be contained by the Loretto-Hilton Center’s main theater, which seats under 1,000. Wood tended to make too many utterances sound like Grand Pronouncements, which eventually led to an interpretive sameness.

The soprano So Young Park contributed an attractive, capably sung portrayal of Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda, albeit with some faulty intonation. She did, however, interpolate a high D just before Gilda is stabbed, thereby subordinating the opera’s perhaps most wrenching moment to vocal display. Joshua Wheeker brought an agreeable tenor to the role of the Duke of Mantua and sang securely, but his characterization of the decadent ruler needed more swagger.

The gloomy production, with sets by Alex Eales and costumes by Mark Bouman, placed the opera in the Paris of Victor Hugo. But with can-can dancing and top-hatted gentlemen suggesting the Belle Epoch, the production evokes a time near the end of Hugo’s life, long after he wrote the play on which Rigoletto was based. In any event, the updating had little appreciable effect on the drama. Bruno Ravella’s direction was hobbled by the decision to make Rigoletto a ventriloquist, from whose dummy the court jester’s caustic remarks—as when mocking the doomed Count Monterone—appeared to emanate.

The ploy could only go so far, given the impracticability of an opera singer performing without moving his lips, and in any case it was a ludicrous sight when, having searched frantically for his abducted daughter, Rigoletto reappeared clutching a dummy. On the other hand, the end brought a touching moment when the dying Gilda, apparently consoling her father, was seen cradling his head in her arms for their duet; usually it’s the other way around.

Roberto Kolb offered routine leadership from the pit. OTSL also presented a fourth opera, Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea, in its 2019 festival season. As usual with the company, all performances are sung in English—Figaro in Andrew Porter’s translation, Rigoletto in James Fenton’s. Occasionally you can hear things, even in operas you know well, that come as discoveries. But in the age of supertitles—and it feels strange to say this—it’s surprising how little difference the choice of language makes to the overall experience. Good diction is always appreciated, whether or not you actually understand the words.

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