It would be unfair to expect cast changes to rescue the Washington Opera's troubled production of Verdi's "Rigoletto." Marta Domingo's muddled direction did little to frame characters, and newcomers to various roles understandably seemed adrift. The strongest, most pleasing singer from the opening-night cast, soprano Anna Netrebko as Gilda, was onstage for Tuesday's performance, singing with an agile, luminous voice, transparent and liquid in its upper range. She was joined by a new Duke of Mantua, a new Rigoletto and, in a smaller part, a new Count Monterone.
Tenor David Miller sang in the company's production of "La Traviata" two seasons ago, and he returned in an unusual portrayal of the womanizing Duke. Miller's youth and athletic presence fit the role, yet his manner and his close-cropped, bleached-blond hair and aloof interest in the lovely Gilda made it seem as if he was dabbling in gay stereotypes. With smart direction this could be a mildly interesting angle, but it was entirely out of bounds for this traditional staging. It was unclear, for example, what he was thinking after he learned that Gilda, his secret mistress, had been abducted. The smirk on his face gave no clear answer except insincerity. It didn't help that Miller's voice is small and feebly projected, with a drop of vinegar in his tone.
More successful was baritone Kimm Julian as the hunchbacked title character. Julian had portrayed the King of Spain in Massenet's "Le Cid" at the Washington Opera, and sang the role through last week. He took over Rigoletto on Tuesday and sang in smooth, impassioned tones. He held the role vocally and with his acting, but it was a stretch to think of Julian, a large man who appears in robust health, as suffering from the physical deformities that torment his character. His hunch, sewn into his costume, was mostly unnoticeable against his broad shoulders.
Along with Netrebko's Gilda, the most convincing presence onstage was Ambrogio Maestri, singing Monterone, the aged count who furiously accuses the Duke of seducing his daughter. Although Maestri didn't have much stage time, he left a strong impression, dignified and affecting in voice and manner, just right for the part. Judging by the suitability of some of the other roles, it seems that in casting Maestri the Washington Opera just got lucky.