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Theater Review: TOP stages a riveting Rigoletto

Lightning flashes, the wind blows ominously and a bitter court jester realizes that his desire for revenge has led to a terrible result.

The dramatic finale to Verdi's "Rigoletto" has helped make the 1851 work one of the most popular operas of all time.

Townsend Opera Players' simple production, which opened Saturday, at Modesto High School is powerfully sung, smoothly presented and sizzling with smoldering desires. This is the best work this 24-year-old company has produced in a long time.

All three leads (guest artists Leodigario Del Rosario, Alison Collins and Andrew Fernando,) offer compelling performances, singing in Italian with English supertitles providing the translation.

Inspired by Victor Hugo's play "Le Roi s' Amuse," the opera focuses on the hunchbacked jester of its title, who works for a womanizing duke and makes him laugh by mocking his courtiers. Rigoletto mostly pokes fun at the way the duke is so easily able to seduce his courtiers' wives and daughters.

Eventually, the men have had enough, kidnap a woman they believe is Rigoletto's mistress and bring her to the duke. However, the woman actually is Rigoletto's innocent, protected teenage daughter, Gilda, who knows little of the world.

An enraged Rigoletto hires an assassin to kill the duke, but his plan goes awry.

The star of this production is Seattle tenor Del Rosario, who plays the duke. He's got the requisite swagger and cockiness down pat andprojects his voice to the back of the house with his commanding rendition of the famed aria "La Donna è Mobile."

After hearing that upbeat, happy melody so frequently in commercials and television shows, it's chilling to listen to it in its original dark context, with the duke flirting with a tavern girl as the forgotten, lovesick Gilda looks on.

Alison Collins, a soprano from San Jose and a TOP regular, offers an effortless, unhurried rendition of "Caro Nome," the other famous aria from the opera. She hits the high notes with ease.

Fernando, the New York baritone who plays the title role, conveys anguish and anger with his voice. His Rigoletto is a devoted father who wants the best for his daughter but is unable to protect her despite his best efforts.

Directed and conducted by TOP founder Erik Buck Townsend, the show features a supporting cast and an orchestra made up of community members. Though there were some wrong notes and ragged patches, the group generally offered a competent interpretation of the splendid music.

Alisha Rabe choreographed the modest dance performed by a small group of girls at the duke's party, while Barbara Wesley outfitted everyone in charming Renaissance attire.

Though some people will be disappointed in the plain scaffolding set designed by Franco Colavecchia and Steve Brownless, others will appreciate how it eliminates complicated, time-consuming set changes. Saturday's performance was blessedly free of the technical problems that have plagued past TOP productions.

The professionalism evident in this staging of "Rigoletto" is an encouraging sign of what the company might accomplish when it moves to the Gallo Center for the Arts in September.

To comment, click on the link with this review at www.modbee.com.

Contact Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan at lmillegan@modbee.com or 578-2313.


'Rigoletto'

Rating: ***½

Where: Modesto High School auditorium, First and H streets; 1,190 seats

When: Friday 7:30 p.m. and Sunday 2 p.m.

Running time: 2½ hours, including two intermissions

Tickets: $23-$30

Information: 572-2867 or www.townsendoperaplayers.com

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