October 1, 2023

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In Steinmetz Hall opera debut, ‘Rigoletto’ is a traditional treat

It was a moment to savor. A full-scale, multilevel set. A chorus filling the stage. Orlando Ballet dancers twirling, Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra musicians playing. The beauty, and beautiful sound, of Steinmetz Hall.

The first opera to take place in the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts’ new hall — a fine production of “Rigoletto” by Opera Orlando — felt like opera with a capital O.

“This hall is a dream come true in so many ways,” said Opera Orlando general director Gabriel Preisser in introductory remarks, before leading the crowd in an unexpected singalong to “God Bless America.”

But the main event was “Rigoletto,” Verdi’s beloved revenge-fueled tragedy in which the title character is cursed — and then sees his worst fear come true.

The Orlando Philharmonic, conducted by Gregory Buchalter, captured the ominous nature of the story right from the start with the foreboding percussion in the overture. The musicians actually overpowered the singers a time or two, but it was hard to blame them as they brought out the excitement of Verdi’s more boisterous chorus numbers and captured the fury of the famous storm scene.

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The other famed number, “La Donna E Mobile,” was given a strong performance, including a crowd-pleasing sustained note, by Kirk Dougherty as the Duke. The love duet between Dougherty and Lindsay Ohse’s Gilda, however, was the vocal highlight of the show — with a purity that made one forget Dougherty’s Duke is a scoundrel.

Ohse also found that same purity and tenderness in her a cappella high notes, even if her face sometimes appeared too shrewd for Gilda’s innocence.

As directed by Kathleen Smith Belcher, SeungHyeon Baek’s Rigoletto is a bit sadder and softer than some. There was real power in Baek’s emotion for Gilda, and Baek and Ohse blended beautifully on a father-daughter duet.

Belcher has some nifty staging tricks — an unexpected boat ride that had me craning my neck to spot real water, and an impeccably staged chilling murder. Grant Preisser’s practical yet evocative set has its own welcome tricks.

Yes, it was grand to see opera presented with the traditional trappings, but I hope the company doesn’t lose sight of the unexpected creative flourishes that have been part of its artistic palette over the years. Opera Orlando always has excelled at surprising its audience — whether with interesting locations such as the historic Casa Feliz in Winter Park, or the magical puppets of “The Secret River” or the delightfully daffy balloon breasts of “Les Mamelles de Tirésias.”

Treats like those are what has helped Opera Orlando stand out in the crowd; with a new playground in Steinmetz Hall, it’s poised to shine even brighter.

  • Length: 2:55, including two intermissions
  • Where: Steinmetz Hall at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, 445 S. Magnolia Ave. in Orlando
  • When: Through April 24
  • Cost: $19 and up
  • Info: operaorlando.org

Find me on Twitter @matt_on_arts, facebook.com/matthew.j.palm or email me at [email protected]. Want more theater and arts news and reviews? Go to orlandosentinel.com/arts. For more fun things, follow @fun.things.orlando on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.