Music critic Michael Church once noted the existence of “Those who mistakenly believe that historical operas by dead composers can only be made ‘relevant’ if they are updated and taken out of their traditional theatrical context”.*
Whether or not you subscribe to this view, Opera Australia’s Roger Hodgman directed offering of Verdi’s masterpiece Rigoletto demonstrates how a return to the original setting, however distant in time or place, offers the opportunity to peel back layers of interpretation and view the work as its creators might have intended.
With libretto by Franceso Maria Piave, the resident poet at La Fenice, Rigoletto is based on Victor Hugo’s drama Le roi s’amuse, considered by the composer to be ‘one of the greatest creations of the modern theatre’. It was the second time Hugo would write about social injustice and hunchbacks in medieval times (the other being The Hunchback of Notrre-Dame in 1831).
In November 1850, as Verdi and Piave worked on the draft, the Venetian police censors banned the production on the grounds of the libretto’s ‘disgusting immorality and obscene triviality’. Verdi argued his case passionately, eventually settling for a compromise allowing the controversial work to premiere at La Fenice in Venice in 1851. Rigoletto continued to attract the attention of the censors, but was overwhelmingly popular with the public and was performed over 250 times during its first decade.
In this production, Hodgman and his creative team take us back to 16th century Italy. The stark and sinister set by Richard Roberts conveys a sense of the Gothic as the plot reeks of conspiracy and betrayal. You could be forgiven for jumping at the shadows created by Lighting Designer Matt Scott or putting your hands to your ears anticipating thunder as the lightning strikes in the final act. In vivid contrast to the subdued tones of the set, Costume Designer Tracy Grant Lord dressed the cast – except for Gilda and Rigoletto – in tones of lusty, blood thirsty red.
Conductor and Verdi exponent Renato Palumbo maintained a tight ensemble. His exceptional musical direction used the tempi to great dramatic effect, presaged by the opening Prelude, creating a soundscape that was unmistakably Verdi. Palumbo teased the nuances from the music, fleshing out the characters and the tension in the narrative that Verdi created so succinctly and imaginatively.
Giorgio Caoduro as the title character was vocally and dramatically outstanding, commanding his voice to portray the bilious rage beneath the bitter humour; the poignancy of deformity against beauty; the monster capable of love; the eternal humiliation of having to entertain those he loathed and who loathed him.
Emma Matthews gave a gracious and delicate Gilda with a glittering coloratura that was agile and warm. Gianluca Terranova was splendid as the lecherous Duke of Mantua. His delivery was taut and he easily met the demands of range and technique that Verdi asked of his tenors. The downside of this being that he sometimes dominated the ensemble pieces. Sian Pendry as Maddalena, was suitably opportunistic and hot-blooded, on this night doubling as Gilda’s duenna Giovanna; David Parkin reprised what must be a sentimental role for him, personified evil as Sparafucile with an imposing presence, menacing low notes and a rich vocal timbre to match.
David Corcoran, Luke Gabbedy and Samuel Dundas added to the rich vocal tapestry in their roles as Borsa, Marullo and Count Ceprano; the bad boys of the Opera Australia chorus were at their malevolent best as the courtiers.
Rigoletto is considered one of Verdi’s most accomplished works for its structure, economy, musicianship and sheer dramatic narrative. It has some of his most famous, most loved and most demanding arias and ensemble pieces. As well as telling the story, Verdi’s writing in Rigoletto skilfully illustrates the characters and their interrelationships.
Directed by Roger Hodgman and his creative team and performed by this cast, this production is a welcome and very valued addition to existing perspectives on Rigoletto.
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©
*Writing in The Independent 12th August 2013.
Rigoletto is being performed in the Joan Sutherland Theatre of the Sydney Opera House on selected evenings and afternoons until August 24th 2014.
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