Review: 'Rigoletto' a musical hit, but the drama lags

Some operas drag you in kicking and screaming. You hate the premise; the ambiguities in plot and personalities defy logic. And you want to shake the characters by the ears — Gilda, girlfriend, what were you thinking handing your heart to that cad, the Duke?

Yet the depth of the music and characters can rope you in against your will, and you leave the theater in tears again, seduced by a great production.

That's how it could have been with Sarasota Opera's production of "Rigoletto." However, for all its musicality, its fine sets and sturdy costuming, the performance Friday night sold no Kleenex at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts Friday. Dramatics were sadly shorted, dealing a heavy blow to what could have been its season's signature work.

Artistic director/conductor Victor DeRenzi was meticulous about casting for music, forging a solid Rigoletto in Marco Nistico and a soaring Gilda in Eleni Calenos. Hak Soo Kim, last seen here as the prince in "La Cenerentola," used his bel canto tenor with surprising success as the compulsively philandering Duke of Mantua, Gilda's romancer and rapist.

As the hired killer Sparafucile, Young Bok Kim has a bass that's cellar-depth but lager-smooth. And Heather Johnson will not be recognizable from her lead Cenerentola role in this 180-degree turn as a murderer's accomplice; she sashays through her brief mezzo role with a Modigliani sensuality. Still, apart from Johnson and Calends' inspired Gilda, the characters seem little moved by the charged lyrics they're singing and unable to employ the breadth of the Phil's stage as an emotional palette.

It became awkward at certain moments. There's barely a ripple of shock from the courtiers when they learn they have not delivered Rigoletto's mistress, but his teenage daughter, to the lecherous duke.

And until he is on his knees, even Nistico delivers his confrontation after his daughter has been deflowered with something less than the anguish we expect him to be feeling.

It's a tribute to DeRenzi's music values — hard won in an opera full of famous-aria traps — that the three-hour work seems to fly by at nowhere near that length. And there's a spectacular storm denouement, with lightning so dramatic it created a buzz among the audience.

We only wish that heat and light had been channeled to the rest of the production.

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