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Ah, "Rigoletto." It's such a sordid tale, populated with so many seriously flawed characters engaging in deception, bribery, slander, abduction, adultery, double-crossing, sexual assault and murder for hire, it's no wonder the Verdi tragedy is one of the most popular operas of all time.

All of that bad behavior, coupled with a compelling Verdi score that grabs the listener and never lets go, would be reason enough to see Utah Opera's current production of "Rigoletto," which opened at the Capitol Theatre on Saturday. But it's soprano Celena Shafer's sparkling performance as Gilda, Rigoletto's passionate but tragically naive daughter, that makes this production a must-see.

Shafer, one of the finest singers Utah has ever produced, brought the lovestruck young woman vividly to life on opening night. She made Gilda's infatuation with the womanizing Duke of Mantua, whom she believes to be a humble student, all too believable; it even helped make sense of her heartbreaking sacrifice at the end. The audience's sympathy for her was almost palpable. And her voice, which has the brilliance and polish of diamonds, was in fine form. Her scintillating rendition of the showpiece aria "Caro nome" brought down the house.

Robert McPherson, as the Duke, has a sweet, ringing tenor voice that's beautifully suited to the role of the sweet-talking, self-absorbed playboy, and he and Shafer shared a charming chemistry before the plot took an ugly turn. (But Tara Faircloth's stage direction made it painfully clear that Gilda is the only female character who doesn't enter her relationship with the Duke with eyes wide open.)

Baritone Guido LeBrón sings the title role. The iconic hunchbacked jester could be a cautionary example for today's "helicopter parents": He's so determined to shelter his daughter from the unpleasantries of his life that he won't tell her where he works or even what their family name is. LeBrón was chillingly convincing as the nasty "insult comic" in the Duke's court and, later, as the groveling father pleading for the safe return of his daughter, but seemed surprisingly low-key in the final scene. Just a hint of histrionics wouldn't have been out of place.

Eric Jordan, as the assassin Sparafucile, was the standout in Utah Opera's solid supporting cast, closely followed by Kirsten Gunlogson as Sparafucile's sister Maddalena. Gregory Pearson as Monterone, John Buffett as Marullo and Tyler Oliphant as Count Ceprano also impressed.

Robert Tweten led the Utah Symphony in a colorful reading of Verdi's incisive score; the men of the Utah Opera Chorus, prepared by chorus master Susanne Sheston, gave a stirring performance as the courtiers. Sets by John Deegan and Sarah Conly, Susan Memmott-Allred's costume design and Nicholas Cavallaro's lighting made for a handsome production. —

Tears of a clown

Utah Opera presents Giuseppe Verdi's "Rigoletto."

When • Reviewed Saturday, Jan. 21; repeats Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Jan. 23, 25 and 27, at 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday, Jan. 29.

Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City.

Tickets • $16 to $75 ($5 more on performance day).

Running time • Three hours, including two intermissions.

In a nutshell • A court jester's efforts to shelter his lovely daughter from his womanizing boss go tragically awry.