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Brutal sex, evil clowns and a vicious curse: It's just another night at Houston Grand Opera

Brutal sex and a vicious curse: Another night at Houston Grand Opera

Houston Grand Opera -Rigoletto Ryan McKinny as Rigoletto January 2014
Ryan McKinny as Rigoletto in the Houston Grand Opera's production of Rigoletto Photo by © Lynn Lane

Clowns, jesters and fools: Why do these figures of theatrical tomfoolery turn tragic?

It may be some weeks before the Houston Grand Opera is ready to "Send in the Clowns," with that classic, mournful lyric of heartbreak in Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music.

But Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto, which runs at the Wortham Theater Center from Friday through Feb. 9, offers up a dark world of cutting wit, brutal seductions, vicious curses and disastrous revenge.

Rigoletto, in other words, is nothing to jest about.

 Although it is the Duke who is engaged in acts of bed-hopping worthy of Olympic competition, women are always to blame. 

Based on a narrative by Victor Hugo, the opera revolves around two figures — the Duke of Mantua and his court jester, the hunch-backed Rigoletto whose biting wit has lacerated many of the Duke's subjects. The Duke cares for nothing but pleasure. To him, women are designed to be available to him, and it doesn't matter, if he picks "Questa or quella": This woman or that.

Although it is the Duke who is engaged in acts of bed-hopping worthy of Olympic competition, women are always to blame. His passions grown hot and cold in an instant. In what is probably the opera's most famous aria, "La donna e mobile" the Duke declares all women to be fickle.

Here's Luciano Pavarotti's stirring rendition of that famous aria from Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's 1982 film version of Rigoletto:

Given the Duke's pleasure-seeking ways, Rigoletto proves the perfect foil. He cares about one thing: Hiding his daughter, Gilda, from the wicked ways of court. The courtiers, stung too frequently by Rigoletto's razor tongue, conspire to kidnap Gilda, while the Duke pretends to be a student to seduce her. He succeeds, so Rigoletto arranges for Sparafcile to assassinate the duke.

But Gilda, dressed as a man, rushes in to receive the fatal blow and thus sacrifices herself to save the Duke she loves even as he has already moved on to other conquests.  

However horrific the plot twists and turns, so much tragedy finds itself motivated by a perverse kind of justice. After all, neither Rigoletto nor the Duke are innocent. Although it is the Duke who, early in the opera, seduces the daughter of Count Monterone, Rigoletto mocks the enraged father and earns his curse:

Later, Rigoletto will remember this moment, as he contemplates the hideous turn of events. Just desserts are often on the menu in opera but they are always hard to swallow. Of course, the innocent Gilda is the one who ends up dead.

Houston Grand Opera offers up a production of Rigoletto conducted by Patrick Summers and directed by Harry Silverstein. HGO Studio Alumnus Ryan McKinny returns this season for roles in Rigoletto, Carmen and Das Rheingold after a striking performance as Tristan's friend and confidant Kurwenal in last season's production of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Indeed, McKinny proved a sexier and far more charismatic figure than Tristan himself, so a turn as a hunch-backed jester will provide an intriguing challenge.

Stephen Costello and Uliana Alexyuk make their HGO debuts as the Duke of Mantua and Gilda respectively.

Rigoletto is not the only opera to find tragedy in jesters and clowns. Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (The Clowns) tells the tale of a traveling acting troupe in which suspicion and adultery lead to murder. The heart may be the most fickle of organs, so it comes as no surprise that jealousy results in a unhappy ending.

Then again, this is the nature of tragedy: Predictable incompatibilities lead to inevitable disaster. Everyone on stage seems a fool for not seeing tragedy approaching like a freight train. All the audience can do is watch.