We have it anecdotally that on the morning after Rigoletto's premiere, theatergoers sang "La Donna e Mobile" in the streets of Venice. You may not think you know that canzone, but you do—it's been quoted everywhere, from Seinfeld to Saturday Night Live to The Simpsons. And for good reason: It's a truly approachable melody from Verdi's favorite among his own operas.
Portland Opera has a lot riding on its staging of Rigoletto—it's coming off a sub-par production of La Calisto, and it took big bets by importing talent from New York—but it all paid off. Rigoletto is a hit. In spite of a bland set and flaccid costumes, the show succeeds in depicting that most engrossing of modern spectacles: a man divided against himself. See it, and you'll be singing the next morning.
Hunchbacked Rigoletto leads a double life. He is jester to the Duke of Mantua, keeping the Duke's court in stitches with his bawdy antics even as he spurs its members to greater heights of decadence and debauchery; he is also a loving father to his daughter, Gilda, whom he keeps locked up at home to preserve her virtue.
The trouble with double lives is keeping the halves separate. As you might expect, Rigoletto can't do it. When Mantua rapes Gilda, Rigoletto must reconcile his two identities. His solution? Murder.
Guest conductor George Manahan of the New York City Opera restores a delicious sense of brashness and even vulgarity to the score, especially during a brief burst of banda music in Act I and during the storm in Act III. Recent productions of Rigoletto have tended to ignore Verdi's detailed dynamic markings, opting for mild tempos and pleasant volumes, but Manahan's wordless choruses and offbeat violins evoke King Lear on the heath—appropriately, since that play fertilized Verdi's imagination and influenced his composing.
Mark Rucker shines as Rigoletto. His lean, powerful baritone carries the show, lending itself equally well to plangent father-daughter duets ("Piangi Fanciulla") and arias of impotent fury ("Cortigiani, vil Razza"), while blending seamlessly in Verdi's famous Act III quartet ("Bella Figlia Dell'Amore"). Sarah Coburn is almost as good—her beguiling looks and pure, diaphanous soprano are perfectly suited to the role of Gilda—but she waffles a few of the high notes of "Caro Nome," a showpiece aria for serious sopranos.
Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St., 241-1802. 7:30 pm Thursday and Saturday, May 14 and 16. $20-$162.