For its 2018 season, Portland Opera is mostly playing it safe. The four productions on the schedule—Orfeo ed Euridice, Faust, La Cenerentola, and Rigoletto—represent some of the most tried-and-true works in the operatic canon. It’s reflective of the recent decisions that the company has made to ensure their survival in a shrinking classical marketplace. To sell tickets, sometimes you have to give people the musical equivalent of comfort food.
The upshot is that the Portland Opera can pour all its resources into each production, leaving room to, for example, decorate the stage with modern art, as they will be doing with this June’s presentation of Faust, or lure in top-tier vocal talent, which director Christopher Mattaliano brought to bear on last weekend’s opening of Rigoletto. While the costuming and sets evoked the opera’s 16th-century setting, the singing throughout injected Verdi’s work with fresh energy and texture.
Soprano Katrina Galka, a former Portland Opera Resident Artist, provided much of the spark. As Gilda, the cloistered, pious daughter of the titular court jester, she throws herself into every note. Sometimes that enthusiasm got the better of her, as Galka hit a couple of sharp notes during the opening night performance, but more often than not, it only added to the emotion of the scene. Singing the show-stopping aria “Caro nome” as she’s being wooed by an impetuous Duke of Mantua (tenor Barry Banks), Galka’s voice vibrated with delight, as if truly tapped into the pleasures found in her body. And as Verdi’s opera moved toward its tragic conclusion, she drew in vital shades of desperation and fear, torn between her devotion to her father and her love of the duke.
Banks was her equal throughout, clearly delighting in the capricious nature of this role. He sweetly worms his way into Gilda’s heart by pretending to be a penniless student, and just as quickly becomes a playboy, singing the famous “La donna è mobile” (or “Woman is fickle”) with a perfect rakish air.
The majority of the opera’s weight was borne confidently by the hunched back of baritone Stephen Powell in the title role. He took some time to find the right combination of volume and emotion to carry his voice through the often rough acoustics of the Keller Auditorium, but by the final acts, he soared, drawing out the wounded emotion and raw anger needed to give this iconic role its breadth and power.