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Magnificent 'Rigoletto' proves Nickel City Opera is for real

Nickel City Opera, Buffalo's new opera company, has upped the ante for its second production, Verdi's "Rigoletto." The tragic tale of a jester bent on revenge could not be more different from Rossini's "The Barber of Seville," which we saw last year.

And the NCO pulled it off. John Packard sang his heart out as Rigoletto, drawing in the audience with his pathos and his power. Heather Buck, as Rigoletto's daughter Gilda, dazzled the audience with her bell-like high notes, and she shared good chemistry with strong-voiced tenor Eric Fennell, who made a terrific, rakish Duke of Mantua.

You get to see NCO director Valerian Ruminski himself, too. As the assassin Sparafucile, he looks as if he walked in off the set of "Boris Godunov," with long, lank black hair and an indifferent, oafish expression. He takes chances. You have to love him.

Friday's opening night production had only a few glitches. There were several long waits between scenes (the 8 p.m. show did not let out until close to midnight). In a hilarious North Tonawanda situation, a live band began booming at a bar down the block and you would have thought it was in the same room with us, it was that loud. Someone must have rushed over and pleaded with the rockers ("Guys, we're doing an opera next door ") because it was silent after 10 minutes or so.

It is high praise for the production that it triumphed and remained taut and gripping.

Ruminski scores points for not trying to do anything pretentious. He and his colleagues give you the story straight, with just enough humor to keep it human. The scenery is traditional, the Renaissance costumes sumptuous.

The Eastern Festival Symphony Orchestra, led by Zachary Kampler, was effective from the word go -- that is, from the first rich, tense trumpet tones that set the stage for the action to come. The group was resonant and confident.

Packard was last year's Figaro, and even the jester costume and the fake nose cannot hide that he is a handsome man. That makes sense -- there ought to be more to Rigoletto than meets the eye. His flexible, strong baritone brought out the beauty of Verdi's writing. The audience felt for his character.

Fennell filled out what could have been a cardboard part with humanity and lent even the chilling "La donna e mobile" a certain allure. You could see why Gilda could not resist him, and you sensed that the womanizing Duke could have reformed, if the stars had lined up differently. He and Buck sang beautifully together, with intensity and passion. In their cadenza-like passages, they sounded free but together -- a tough thing to pull off.

Quinn Patrick's creamy voice made Maddalena, the Duke's next flirtation, worth watching and hearing. As a whole, the cast looked good and worked together well. Belly dancers from a local company added color to Act I. Little touches like this matter.

Speaking of which, Ruminski -- besides grabbing attention with that scene-stealing bass voice -- has the gift of look-at-me. You always want to watch him when he's on stage. One moment when he picked his teeth was priceless.

In deference to the historic Riviera he prefaced the opera with a grainy film of himself introducing "Rigoletto." "Relax and enjoy an evening of opera," he told us.

I think everyone did.

NCO's "Rigoletto" repeats today at 2:30 p.m.

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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>Opera Review

Nickel City Opera

Performance of Verdi's "Rigoletto." Friday evening and 2:30 p.m. today at the Riviera Theatre, 67 Webster St., North Tonawanda. Tickets are $20 to $50. Call 692-2413.