Opera Warhorses

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Dramatic, lyrical and powerful: Ryan McKinny’s Rigoletto Role Debut – Houston Grand Opera, January 24, 2014

January 25th, 2014

Houston Grand Opera mounted Verdi’s “Rigoletto”, providing East Texas the opportunity to experience a youthful cast, comprised of strong contenders for operatic superstar status.

The conductor was Houston Grand Opera’s Music Director Patrick Summers, who is the opera company’s co-manager (with general director Perryn Leech). Summers’ career has been devoted to mentoring many of the world’s opera singers.

Ryan McKinny’s Rigoletto

One of the most promising of the abundant crop of graduates of HGO’s renowned young artist’s program is the California-raised dramatic baritone Ryan McKinny [See Rising Stars: An Interview with Ryan McKinny.]

Still early in his operatic career, McKinny took on one of the greatest of Italian operatic roles, the title role of Verdi’s “Rigoletto”.

[Below: Rigoletto (Ryan McKinny, front right center) pleads for the courtiers to let him find his daughter; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


Not quite yet in his mid-30s, a plausible age for his Renaissance-era character to have a teenage daughter who catches the eye of the licentious Duke, McKinny portrayed the ill-starred Rigoletto empathetically.

McKinny’s beautifully crafted, often understated, performance was one that emphasized Rigoletto’s humanity and the lyricism of the vocal line that Verdi created for him.

He delivered Rigoletto’s great arias with true feelings for the pathos that underlies each. His Pari siamo, reflecting on his first encounter with the assassin-for-hire Sparafucile (brilliantly played by Russian basso Dmitry Belosselskiy), rang true as an introspective self-denunciation of his own employment as a purveyor of slanderous “humor”.

Even more arresting was McKinny’s delivery of the aria Cortigiani, where the defeated Rigoletto shows his suffering to the courtiers he had so savagely ridiculed. He reveals that the woman they kidnapped for the Duke’s amusement is his daughter, who is all that matters to him.

[Below: Rigoletto (Ryan McKinny, above) holds the dying Gilda (Uliana Alexyuk, below); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


Later, after the courtiers leave, Gilda reveals that she is no longer a virgin. Then Monterone (Canadian basso Robert Pomakov), the man who cursed both Rigoletto and the Duke, expresses dismay  on his way to execution that the Duke has been unaffected by the curse Monterone had hurled at him,

McKinny’s Rigoletto, who, himself, has felt the Curse’s effect, instead of reacting with blustery anger, calls for a vendetta with the calm calculation of a man who understands that the Duke is his adversary and must suffer consequences for his actions.

Stephen Costello’s Duke of Mantua and Uliana Alexyuk’s Gilda

[Below: the Duke of Mantua (Stephen Costello, right), in disguise as an impoverished student, expresses his love for Gilda (Uliana Alexyuk, left); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photgraph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


The performance was the occasion for the Houston debut of Pennsylvania-born Stephen Costello, who also only recently turned 30,  as the Duke of Mantua [See Rising Stars: An Interview with Stephen Costello, Part 1 and Rising Stars: An Interview with Stephen Costello, Part 2.]

That McKinny and Costello would be triumphant in their roles seemed preordained, Costello having achieved international recognition for his accomplishments in the French and Italian leggiero and lyric tenor roles, McKinny with successes as a Wagnerian jugendlicher baritone. [See Ryan McKinny, Melody Moore, Jay Hunter Morris Soar in “Flying Dutchman” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2013.]

What was unanticipated was the success of the Gilda, the Ukrainian soprano Uliana Alexyuk, who stepped in to replace another artist for the run of performances only a few days before the production’s opening night (too late to be acknowledged in the printed program but in time for the production photographs.)

[Below: the Duke of Mantua (Stephen Costello, front, wearing robe) expresses his concern for the disappearance of the woman he loves at that moment; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


As staged by Director Harry Silverstein, Rigoletto can be thought of the central figure of a quintet of human beings (that includes his daughter Gilda, the Duke of Mantua that he serves, the assassin-for-hire Sparafucile and the latter’s sister, Maddalena). Those five engage in high risk behaviors, each tempered by human concerns, against the surreality of the courtiers’ choreographed movements.

In the first scene in the Mantuan court, Rigoletto engages and deliberately annoys the courtiers, but, from the moment of Monterone’s curse, we no longer see Rigoletto the overbearing misanthropic jester, but as a deeply scarred human being.

[Below: Rigoletto (Ryan McKinny, left) and the Duke of Mantua (Stephen Costello, second from left) stand apart from the Mantuan courtiers; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


Of the five main characters, each has a dark side and some arguably redeeming character. The Duke is in despair when he first discovers that Gilda has been kidnapped and expresses his belief that Gilda could be his first constant love. (That he is already married and engages in affairs after his deflowering of Gilda will lessen the credibility of that sentiment for some.)

Maddalena wants to spare the life of a person so handsome, although at the expense of someone else’s life. Sparafucile insists that murder-for-hire is an honorable profession, and he will not cross a client. Gilda, with the purest heart of any of the characters, is herself sufficiently psychologically damaged to choose suicide on a moment’s spur.

[Below: Dmitry Belosselskiy as Sparafucile; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


Canadian mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule made a fine impression as Maddalena, contributing an attractive mezzo to the famous quartet with Costello, Aleksyuk and McKinny.

Silverstain’s staging emphasizes the surreality of the Mantuan court, such as when the courtiers as a group reenact the kidnapping of Gilda.

The trio of principal courtiers were well-cast with tenor Scott Quinn’s Borsa, Thomas Richards’ Count Ceprano and, particularly effective, Reginald Smith, Jr’s Marullo. Andrea Carroll played both Countess Ceprano and the skeptical page in the service of the Duchess of Mantua.

Victoria Livengood was Gilda’s disobedient guardian.

The familiar sets are by Michael Yeargan. Although I am not a partisan of Yeargan’s sets, particularly for Rigoletto’s and Gilda’s dwelling, they do allow some entertaining moments, such as when Giovanna throws a house-key to the Duke, whose sound distracts Rigoletto, allowing the Duke to scamper up to the second floor.  The costumes were created  by Sir Peter Hall.


I recommend performances with this cast and conductor without reservation, both for the veteran opera goer and for persons new to opera.

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