Rigoletto, or what’s in the bag?

Such is the evolution of art that a play France’s famous man of letters and liberty struggled to save from the state’s censors can now be taken for granted as the season-finale production of the struggling opera company of America’s seventh-largest city. Progress? Of a sort!

Rigoletto is a three-act opera by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, first performed in 1851. Verdi adapted his fellow Romantic Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse, an 1832 play thought by the censors of the day to hew rather too closely to contemporary court foibles.

The jester of the title was based on Triboulet, an infamously quick-witted fool who entertained kings Louis XII and Francis I, and suffered from microcephaly, a condition in which the head and brain are markedly small in relationship to the body.

Following Hugo’s unsuccessful legal battle, Le Roi s’amuse was banned for 50 years, but the title character found new life as Verdi’s Rigoletto, a hunchback baritone whose cynicism and animosity know few bounds. Austrian censors ultimately forced Verdi to change the setting of his production from France to Mantua, Italy, where …

Rigoletto serves an unrepentant Don-Juan Duke who has fallen in lust with a mysterious young beauty spotted at church …

… leading to the unsurprising revelation that Rigoletto cares for one thing: his daughter Gilda — portrayed by up-and-coming soprano Audrey Elizabeth Luna — whom he conceals from the evil world in general and the Duke’s roving eye in particular. Her one public outing? Don’t make us tell you. Extra points if you can guess whom she loves.

Alas, Rigoletto’s vocal lack of sympathy for the deflowered flowers of the lords he despises leads to both a curse and a plot against him. Thinking Rigoletto’s daughter is actually his lady friend, the courtiers trick the hunchback into helping them kidnap her. They stash Gilda at the Duke’s palace where things happen that wouldn’t even make Gawker in this day and age, but cause Rigoletto to hire an assassin: Baylor-graduate bass Matthew Treviño.

When Rigoletto and Gilda arrive at the assassin’s inn, the Duke is overheard singing the opera’s popular canzone, “Le donna è mobile” (“Woman is fickle”), a tenor showpiece (and one of the most recognizable opera works) performed here by Texas native Michael Wade Lee. The hunchback tells his daughter that the Duke is wooing the assassin’s sister, Maddalena. Rigoletto forces Gilda to go Victor Victoria and sends her ahead to Verona — a city not exactly famous for happy endings.

Rigoletto lies in wait in the assassin’s house, but manages to miss Gilda’s secret return. She overhears Maddalena pleading for the Duke’s life, and then …

The Curse! Gilda sacrifices herself for the Duke, who changes his wicked ways in response to her act of selfless love … wait, different story … whose little soldier soldiers bravely on. His reprise of “Le donna è mobile” alerts Rigoletto that the body bag he’s been given contains not the playboy but his beloved daughter, who revives just long enough to ask her father’s forgiveness. •

Rigoletto Jun 18-20 $25-$110 saopera.com
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