The modest but often surprising Prince George's Civic Opera has produced a "Rigoletto" that often transcends its humble origins, a "Rigoletto" that gives enormous satisfaction. It is hardly perfect, but it is not merely a good production for a small company with a low budget; it is a worthy representation of Giuseppe Verdi's masterpiece, musically sensitive and dramatically compelling. Its sole repeat performance (3 p.m. tomorrow at Prince George's Community College) should draw a capacity audience.
Three elements make this "Rigoletto" special, and it would be hard to rank them in order of importance because what matters most is their superb interaction. These elements are the conducting of young David Abell, who will certainly be on the international operatic circuit in the 1990s, the extraordinary performance of Mark Rucker in the title role and the singing and acting of Carolene Winter as Gilda. The combination works most notably in the Rigoletto-Gilda duets, with Abell's presence clearly perceptible in the fine ensemble blend and phrasing (as it is also in the well-sung quartet), but it is evident in a special electricity whenever either of these singers holds the stage under Abell's baton.
Rucker has a compelling stage presence throughout, and it rises to larger-than-life levels in such big numbers as "Pari siamo" and "Cortigiani" -- "We are equal" and "Filthy rabble" in Andrew Porter's idiomatic, singable English translation, which was projected with remarkable clarity by the whole cast. Last night, Rucker sounded like a major talent: vocally rich, accurate and expressive; dramatically powerful without ever stepping into overstatement in a role that constantly proffers that temptation.
Winter rose superbly to the challenge of this excellent partner and conductor. Dramatically, she made Gilda more convincing and sympathetic than many a better-known soprano; musically, she was excellent throughout. Her "Caro nome," taken by Abell at a comfortable pace, with orchestral support of soft, velvet texture, was as satisfying as any I can recall. Part of the credit for the singers' impact must go to the conductor, who not only knows how to select voices but how to bring out their best.
Paul McIlvaine, as the Duke, was acceptable by small-company standards but rather outdistanced in this company; he acted well and generally sang pleasantly, but his voice had occasional pitch problems and his tone became edgy at or above forte. Daria Gerwig and Bill Grauer sang well as Maddalena and Sparafucile, and Philip Candilis was impressive in his brief appearances as Monterone. Stage director Dorothy Biondi offered some interesting stage business and convincing visual details and coaxed capable acting from all the performers, including the well-filled secondary roles. The chorus has improved theatrically but still lacks ease in stage movement. But the imperfections in this "Rigoletto" were secondary and the important things were very well done.