ST. PETERSBURG — There was a vintage, golden-age quality to Galen Scott Bower's performance Friday as the title character of Rigoletto by St. Petersburg Opera at the Palladium Theater. That is high praise because opera, perhaps more than any art form, is obsessed with the past — the walls of opera houses are lined with photos of singers in long-ago productions — and Verdi's jester is an iconic role.
Bower was the complete Rigoletto, mercilessly mocking one and all in the depraved court of the Duke of Mantua, then raging in impotent fury at his fate in the dark soliloquy Pari siamo. The jester's love for his daughter, Gilda — "My daughter is my whole world," he pleads when she is abducted — was tenderly expressed by the baritone.
Friday was a big night for Sara Peeples, a young soprano from St. Petersburg singing a principal role with her hometown company for the first time as Gilda, and she came through with an impressive performance in front of the full house. At first, she displayed a touch of tension in extraneous body and hand movement, but she quickly settled down to give a moving portrayal of the jester's innocent daughter who is seduced by the Duke. Gilda's music is full of coloratura fireworks, and Peeples had fine security of tone and dramatic focus in the high, delicate passages. The scene in which Gilda confesses her shame to Rigoletto was heartbreaking.
As the Duke, Luke Grooms delivered his famous aria on the fickleness of women, La donna e mobile, with swagger designed to irritate a feminist. Also striking was the contrast between the tenor's oily sweetness as the Duke impersonating a student to woo Gilda and the forceful brutality his voice took on as ruler of the court of libertines.
Rigoletto has some of Verdi's most artful orchestration, and artistic director Mark Sforzini conducted the 34-piece orchestra — about half moonlighting from the Florida Orchestra — in a superb performance. Fred Furnari was suitably menacing as the assassin Sparafucile, but Joseph Ryan looked too young for the nobleman Monterone who throws down the curse that sets the tragedy in motion.
Director Dean Anthony and designer Barry Steele collaborated on a production dominated by a platform in front of the orchestra and black and white images projected on the back wall to suggest settings. Cast members moved cubes, a gate and other pieces in scene changes. The spare staging was effective, though some of the Act 3 interaction between the Duke and Maddelena (Julie De Vaere) inside and Rigoletto and Gilda outside the inn — and Sparafucile in both places — got murky with only the cubes as boundaries. Costumer Michelle Manchess Moore dressed everyone in black and white, with the courtiers' garb making an especially eye-catching impression.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.