The opera world has been giving a little extra attention to a couple of giants born in 1813, Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner.
Locally, that bicentennial salute has included memorable concerts by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra featuring excerpts from Wagner's mountainous operas. And this week, Lyric Opera Baltimore offers a production of one of Verdi's earliest masterworks for the stage, "Rigoletto."
The "Rigoletto" staging brings tenor Bryan Hymel back to town after his Lyric debut last season, when he made a formidable impression in Gounod's "Faust." He'll sing the role of the lecherous Duke, whose court jester, the hunchbacked Rigoletto, has a fetching, (not for long) hidden-away daughter named Gilda.
The path that leads to the Duke ravishing Gilda, and the way a curse seems to follow Rigoletto around, is the stuff of great theater, propelled by Verdi's irresistible music.
"I understand how slimy, and also how charmingly slimy, the Duke is," Hymel (pronounced EE-mel) said. "He was born into this power that he uses to control people. His appetites are completely out of control. He's just a vile, vile character, completely self-absorbed. I find him fun, although it's not my personality."
The New Orleans-born Hymel, 33, performed this role in the early years of his career, but put it away about a decade ago. During that decade, he made his reputation in such works as Bizet's "Carmen" and Puccini's "La Boheme." He won particular praise as Aeneas in Berlioz' monumental "Les Troyens" ("The Trojans") at New York's Metropolitan Opera earlier this season and last year at London's Royal Opera House.
Within the space of a few weeks this spring, Hymel received two major opera honors — one British, the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera; the other, the $50,000 Beverly Sills Artist Award given by the Met.
The recognition is easy to understand. As he demonstrated last year at the Lyric, Hymel possesses a sizable, vibrant voice and keen musicality to guide it. His performance in "Rigoletto" promises to be rewarding.
"I'm enjoying getting back into the piece," he said. "It's a re-introduction to Verdi at a time when I am more ready and understand the art form better than when I sang it 10 years ago."
Any tenor in "Rigoletto" has a built-in advantage, since the role brings with it a chance to sing one of the most famous arias in all of opera. "La donna e mobile" has such an instantly memorable melody that Verdi kept it under wraps until just before the opera's opening night in 1851 to make sure it wouldn't leak out.
"'La donna e mobile' is almost like my baby blanket of arias," Hymel said. "When I was 19, I went to the Aspen (Colo.) Festival for first time, and they were having a Verdi aria competition. It was the first competition I ever won."
The composer's music sits well for Hymel — "Verdi is really good about keeping you honest and supple," he said — and more of it will figure in his career. He is due to sing in "Les Vepres Siciliennes" ("The Sicilian Vespers") at the Royal Opera House in London next season, and "Don Carlo" will be added to his repertoire in the next few years.
For the Baltimore "Rigoletto," Hymel is joined by baritone Stephen Powell in the title role and soprano Norah Amsellem as Gilda. (Former Baltimore Ravens player Ta'u Pupu'a is also in the cast as one of the Duke's courtiers.)
Richard Buckley, the production's conductor, puts this opera on a high place.
"It's not just that the arias and duets are tuneful — Verdi had an incredible gift for melody — but that the in-between fabric still has a melodic sense," Buckley said. "Verdi makes it possible to go from the park-and-bark style of singing to living, breathing drama."
Hymel seconds that.
"The way Verdi has crafted the characters with the music," the tenor said, "can be heart-breaking and spine-tingling."
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