It was 21 years ago that the Jefferson Performing Arts Society presented the first major opera in Jefferson Parish, Giuseppe Verdi’s 1851 masterpiece, “Rigoletto.”
That opera, in 1994, was performed on the limited confines of the East Jefferson High School auditorium stage, which, for 37 years, served as JPAS’s East Bank performance venue. Now, with an expansive new, state-of-the-art facility open on Airline Drive in Metairie, the company is feeling confident enough to stretch its creative legs and stage a full-scale grand opera production.
That’s what JPAS will be doing this weekend with its new production of “Rigoletto.” Performances will be given on Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday in a 2 p.m. matinee.
As the first opera to be presented in the newly dedicated Jefferson Performing Arts Center, it is generating buzz in its home community, as well as all around the New Orleans area.
The new facility allows JPAS to erect larger, more elaborate sets for this production than was previously possible. In addition, it offers a custom-designed orchestra pit from which JPAS Artistic Director Dennis Assaf will conduct the 42-piece JPAS Symphony Orchestra.
The occasion is also generating excitement from two of the first singers selected for leading opera roles in the new center. Dennis Jesse, a baritone and member of the LSU music faculty, and soprano Amanda Kingston, a Wisconsin native now residing in Houston, both offered their observations on what the experience means to them.
Jesse, who sings the title role of the hunchbacked court jester to the Duke of Mantua, said, “I feel super honored to be able to come here and help Maestro Assaf celebrate this great achievement.”
The role is not a new one for Jesse, having performed it in three other cities, but he emphasizes that it is not an easy one. “It is one of the most challenging roles for a baritone to take on,” he said. “It’s definitely not a sprint but a marathon. You have to be very smart and pace yourself well throughout the opera. But the role itself fits my voice well.”
The opera’s plot is largely based on a controversial Victor Hugo five-act satire on European royalty titled “Le roi s’amuse” (The King Amuses Himself). When Hugo’s play was written it was deemed offensive to monarchies by the Habsburgs who ruled over much of Western Europe. Shut down after only one performance, it was still banned when Verdi conceived of the idea of writing an opera based on it.
Only after Verdi and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, agreed to make the villain of the story the fictitious duke of a no-longer-extant Italian duchy instead of the king of France was the opera allowed to make its premiere in Habsburg-controlled Venice.
Surrounded by plots, counter-plots, conspiracies, curses and betrayals, Rigoletto struggles valiantly but in vain to protect his young, beautiful daughter, Gilda, from the lustful predations of his employer, the Duke of Mantua. After Gilda is abducted and seduced, Rigoletto himself is forced to resort to the same tactics being used against him. However, his plot for revenge backfires, and the opera, like many others in the standard repertoire, ends tragically.
Kingston, who was cast in the role of Gilda, commented, “It’s been a wonderful experience. The music and the score are so powerful, and there’s so much emotion that runs through it the whole time. The themes and the melodies are tunes that will stick in your head. The other singers are wonderful, and the maestro has been great.”
“It’s a tragic role, but it’s been kind of fun exploring and learning about the different characters,” Kingston said. “Everybody is bringing their own ideas and lives to the creative process here.”
“Rigoletto” gave birth to one of the best-known arias in the history of opera, “Le donna e mobile” (Women are fickle). It is sung in this production by Juan Carlos Valls, a Uruguayan tenor in the Duke of Mantua’s role. Other principals in the production include bass-baritone George Cordes as Sparafucile, a hired assassin, and mezzo-soprano Claire Shackleton as Sparafucile’s sister, Maddalena.
Massimo Pezzutti who, coincidentally, is from Mantua, Italy, is the director. Twenty-six other local performers are cast in various supporting roles.