One of the reasons opera is still considered a popular art form among the classes that can afford it is that for the last 200 years or so, the world repertoire has accumulated enough works whose reputations precede them, thanks mostly to the music written for them by some great composers. I'm therefore convinced that the many people who have come and continue to come to The Israeli Opera-Performing Arts Center do so primarily to hear the Duke of Mantua singing about the fickle female heart (perhaps the most popular aria ever, familiar even to those unschooled in opera ), Rigoletto expressing his broken heart by seven times repeating two meaningless syllables in a descending series ("La-ra, la-ra, la-ra, la-ra, la-ra, la-ra, la-ra" ), and Gilda trilling notes of dizzying heights as she sings the precious name of her beloved.

Today we demand these performances be musically flawless and make our heart flutter in the bargain. But opera was once a popular art form for many classes, including the middle and even lower classes (especially in Italy, of course ), because these musical climaxes were interwoven with powerful plots and given to colorful characters who were the center of attention. Thus, for some two centuries, spectators went to hear opera mostly to be moved by the story, the music being an aid to stimulate and satisfy the senses.

For today's sophisticated audiences, most opera plots seem implausible and trivial. But careful attention to the words of the great operas - not only the notes - show that these are complex dramatic, psychological and social structures that the composers were well aware of when they wrote the melodies, chose the themes, and guided the libretto's choices for what to write and how. These structures can say a lot about the moods that affected the writing of the operas, and even about the era in which the operas were performed.

Women as o\bjects

This "Rigoletto" is no exception, and British director David Pountney is acutely aware of it. The production, which first hit the boards of The Israeli Opera in 2005, has only come into sharper focus for this director, who is well served by the late Stefanos Lazaridis' red and black set. The plot comes from the world of men in which women are objects to be used; once the novelty has worn off, the women can be placed in a well-lit curio cabinet (hence the transparent display cases in the duke's palace ) and forgotten. The first scene of the opera develops this image: A group of men in evening dress make young women dance in tutus, poking their hands and walking sticks up their dresses while the duke sings about there being no difference between one woman and another. Those who are no longer center stage crawl about on the floor in total abasement and humiliation.

The scenes Pountney sets are quite explicit, but they are nothing compared to the Covent Garden production, which has been running since 2001, directed by David McVicar, in which the first scene is of an orgy of fully nude women being raped. But what stands out in that first scene is that Rigoletto, the hunchbacked jester we know, seen in his heartrending tragedy, is one of the leading marauders. While the duke abducts the wife of Count Ceprano, Rigoletto is insulting the count and even incites the duke to have the count put to death. In Pountney's production, Rigoletto, with obvious salacious pleasure, traces the body of one of the girls, supine with sexual satiety and inebriation, with his walking stick. Even the count warns Rigoletto who has crossed every boundary, and that will cost him dearly.

In the next scene, Rigoletto happens to run into the paid assassin Sparafucile. The chance encounter plants the seed in Rigoletto's mind to have the duke killed, and also makes him see himself from the outside, as a character not dissimilar from the killer: Sparafucile cuts with his dagger whereas Rigoletto cuts with his tongue. But the audience has probably already noticed the resemblance between Rigoletto and the duke, because despite the deep contempt Rigoletto holds for the duke's court, where he is the jester, he is fully complicit in the crime, even participating actively without any pangs of conscience, as long as the victims are other fathers' daughters.

Rigoletto the villain

And this is one of the most fascinating aspects of this opera: Rigoletto is actually the villain of the opera bearing his name. His behavior in its first part certainly doesn't paint him in any positive light. In this sense he is similar to Shylock of "The Merchant of Venice" who, in terms of his character and actions, is hardly worth our compassion. And, like Shylock (as well as Richard III ), Rigoletto excuses his behavior by being "different" (crippled ) and therefore hated by those around him. For Rigoletto, this is enough of an explanation for his hatred of other people and enough to convince himself that, because he is only pretending, he is not responsible for their exploits and his own.

Like Shylock, Rigoletto also has a daughter whom he wants to protect from the evils of this corrupt world. A little like Arnolphe, in "A School for Wives," he shuts her up in a large glass cage (an echo of the duke's display cases ) to keep her innocence to himself. A long duet between him and Gilda, in which he refuses to tell her anything about her past or his, could even let one suspect that he is not necessarily her father, even though this production does not dwell on this motif. Pountney is interested in showing that Rigoletto is no different from the duke he wants to harm, because both treat women the same way, as playthings without a personality of their own. Only the way they toy with them differs.

But, like the case of Shylock, from a certain point in the plot, what happens to him is so horrible that even if the character still fails to elicit sympathy from the audience, it is finally impossible not to pity him and weep for his misfortune. Because it's not only that the profligate courtiers abuse him and abduct his daughter, and that he gladly participates in the abduction without knowing what he's doing; it's not only that he discovers that his daughter, the light of his life, is in love with the debauched duke and is steadfast in her love even after she discovers he is not worthy of it (perhaps if Rigoletto hadn't guarded her naivete so zealously she wouldn't have been so easily tempted by his charms ); rather, it's that he also falls victim to the trap he set for the duke and kills the one he loves more than anything in the world. It is no coincidence that with his walking stick he greedily traces the sack he is sure holds the duke's body, recalling what he did to the drunken wench in the first scene. In a moment he'll find out he's been abusing the body of his daughter.

By the way, just as Rigoletto excuses his behavior and blames it on his fate and the attitude he perceives from others, the duke's famous aria about the fickleness of women is, more than anything else, merely an excuse for his own behavior. In the first scene the duke declared that all women are the same (and are not good for anything other than sex ). After meeting Gilda he does announce to the audience - though not to her - that he is willing to dedicate himself to a single love for her sake, but in the third act he explains (and she hears ) that his behavior is really a defensive measure against the treacherous nature of all women, an ironic twist on the fact that the plot of the opera is a complete refutation of the duke's thesis. Even Sparafucile's sister, who regularly seduces men who then fall victim to her brother's dagger, tries to save the duke and even Gilda, who followed her love and discovered the duke wasn't worthy of it, is willing to punish herself (and her father ), knowing that she is saving the life of someone unworthy of her feelings. Are there many other examples of women less fickle, more true to themselves, even if this should lead them to their death?

Emotional swings

This is the dramatic scaffolding Verdi's music covers with substance and infuses with passion. On both sides there are two voices coming from fierce-looking men: Carlos Almaguer, with his broad chest and heavy visage, of course sounded excellent to me, though somewhat constricted in his vocal power, and taking too little advantage of the emotional swings experienced by his character. But from a certain point in the story it doesn't really matter what he's like, because what is done to him makes one want to hug him in any case.

Jean-Francois Borras as the duke is the kind of masculine tenor that, on the one hand, makes it easy for viewers to understand why women fall for him and, on the other, is capable of moving us profoundly without relying on vocal dominance alone.

But the special quality of this production is based on the soprano, Hila Baggio, who portrays Gilda. The Israeli Opera's original planning called for her to be the understudy for a guest soprano, but during rehearsals the decision was made - wisely, I think - to have her sing at the premiere. There is something about her voice and stage character that contribute something unique to both of her partners. From my perspective, thanks to her it would not have been a mistake to call this opera "Gilda."

Gilda is a dramatic role requiring a wide vocal range. She starts out as an innocent young girl but later is forced to make dramatic decisions with tragic ramifications. For me, that elusive combination of beauty, appeal and tenderness becomes apparent in the second act, from the duet with Rigoletto (just before it ends, the two of them have an extended, unaccompanied segment of complex, magical interplaying voices, in which Baggio marvelously balances the brassiness of Rigoletto's voice ), followed by the love duet with the duke - totally different in style, and toward the end another a cappella segment for two voices embracing one another. After these comes Gilda's great aria in which Verdi issues his soprano an extreme challenge of vocal pyrotechnics. A bravura turn, Baggio sings this coloratura segment with minimal effort, as if presenting the musings of a young girl daydreaming of love. This was the climax after which there was nothing left to do but dive into the depths of the third act tragedy, where the duke remains untouched, the stage strewn with his victims: father and daughter who loved not wisely and all too well.