Plenty of contemporary directors feel compelled to leave a calling card on an opera’s front porch, often by reinterpreting or updating a work in an original way, typically with the stated goal of making it more immediately resonant for today’s audiences.
In this spirit, “Rigoletto” has been reimagined through the lens of Little Italy in the 1950s, Las Vegas in the 1960s, and even the “Planet of the Apes.”
Israeli director Tomer Zvulun resists this temptation altogether, placing straightforward theatrical storytelling as the main agenda of his new “Rigoletto,” which opened on Friday night at the Shubert Theatre as Boston Lyric Opera’s third production of the season.
Verdi’s aggressively tuneful crowd-pleaser is here returned to something closer to its original setting in and around the Ducal Court of 16th-century Mantua. John Conklin’s stylized period sets effectively frame the action, and the cast of young singers delivers the kind of energetic performances that had Friday’s opening night audience rising swiftly to its feet.
Looming above the stage is a depiction of a model Italian city, white and gleaming, based on a 15th-century painting by Piero della Francesca.
Less noble ideals clearly hold sway in the court below, though even so, there is something a bit gratuitous in this production’s underlining of the Duke’s hair-pulling, rag-doll inducing degradation of his feminine prey.
We get it: Rigoletto must protect his daughter Gilda from the Duke’s clutches at all costs.
Making his Lyric Opera debut as well as singing his first Rigoletto, Michael Mayes was compelling at the hunchbacked jester of lore. His baritone is generously scaled and on Friday, with a few exceptions, he deployed it well to convey both sides of this character who both cruelly mocks the world and then finds himself a tragic victim of its cruelty.
The element of class critique that “Rigoletto” inherits from the Victor Hugo play on which it is based, also registers in Mayes’s portrayal, particularly his pointed rendering of Verdi’s extraordinary aria, ‘Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,’ in which he lashes out at the vile courtiers who have abducted Gilda for the Duke’s pleasure.
Tenor Bruce Sledge, despite fighting a cold on Friday, sang the role of the Duke with fluidity and ardor, and Nadine Sierra sang Gilda with wide-eyed innocence, lucid phrasing, and a sweetness of tone that won over this opening night crowd in a big way.
Morris Robinson’s Sparafucile was resonant and duly imposing.
And Christopher Franklin presided credibly in the pit, especially in the score’s famous ensemble numbers. This “Rigoletto” runs through March 23.