Opera North's new production of Verdi's Rigoletto is boldly imagined, even though not everything comes off.
We start with Rigoletto himself, during the Prelude, in glittery dinner-jacket, in front of a dressing-room table with its mirror surrounded by narrow strip lights. He is being prepared for, presumably, that evening's appearance as the Duke of Mantua's jester, by two figures in completely white eighteenth-century costume. We see them again later, and the strip lights also return, to play a major role in Howard Hudson's effective lighting, complementing Rae Smith's designs.
Director Femi Elufowoju jr homes in on Monterone's curse as the main plot driver, and also uses the casting of black singers – as Rigoletto, Gilda, Monterone, and Marullo, one of the courtiers – as emblematic of 'otherness', drawing on his Nigerian heritage to place the curse in a culture where it would have much greater resonance than for the party animals of the Duke of Mantua's court.
The problem is that, in the theatre at least, symbolism and realism generally make for an uncomfortable mix. When Gilda is reunited with Rigoletto after being abducted, she appears in a virginal lacy wedding dress, escorted by those eighteenth-century figures in white, which jolts us momentarily into the world of Der Rosenkavalier.
The intended comic moments – a pizza delivery for the Count's guards arriving at the end of scene 1, two police officers failing to prevent Gilda's abduction, Hazel Croft's pistol-toting Giovanna – simply misfire. As Monterone, Sir Willard White - there's luxury casting for you - is resplendent in a Nigerian tribal chief's costume – but even as he is being led to his execution?
His sudden reappearance at the very end of the opera as Rigoletto recalls the curse, is a striking visual coup, but adds nothing dramatically.
Act III is played out on a patch of waste ground with a pizza shack doing duty for the inn (and which presumably supplies the delivery in Act I), a tent - the scene of Maddalena's seductions - and a burnt-out car which has no other function than to add to the dismal setting. The backdrop's nocturnal storm-clouds, though, are highly atmospheric.
Roman Arndt makes the Duke of Mantua both personable and irresponsibly self-centred. Both 'Questa o quella' and 'La donna e mobile' project a lack of awareness of the havoc his playboy lifestyle leaves in its wake. Eric Greene pinpoints Rigoletto the professional entertainer, and captures the angst of his private life, though some of his physical movements verge on overacting - this is also true of the Duke's courtiers. Jasmine Habersham's Gilda is not merely innocent, but appears to have regressed to (or never left) a state of infantile dependency, an indictment of Rigoletto's over-protection, no doubt; she appears to live in a picture-book fantasy-world represented by a kind of Rousseau-esque jungle. 'Caro nome' – agile, bright-voiced – is all sweet naivete. Callum Thorpe brings a really dark tone to the role of assassin-for-hire Sparafucile, all the way down to some ink-black bottom notes. Alyona Abramova does as much as anyone can with the limited role of Maddalena.
Conductor Patrick Milne, deputising for Opera North's Music Director Garry Walker for this and a previous date in the run, had the Verdian style at his finger-tips; orchestra and chorus responded with all the panache we've come to expect from the company's previous Verdi stagings.
Copyright © 21 March 2022