At the State Theatre in the Arts Centre at Melbourne on opening night, the Opera Australia (OA) cast were in colourful costumes for the all-new production of nineteenth century Italian romantic composer Giuseppe Verdi’s stunning opera Rigoletto. It is set in a world of corruption, where one man declares ‘women are all the same to me’, possessions to be played with. He controls everything and everybody.
Rigoletto is all about blurring the boundaries between ‘anarchy and respectability’ and above all about how we handle the two imperatives; power and revenge.
The moral of the tale is that if we live a life full of betrayal, one that is hell bent on the corruption of the innocent, then a broken heart and misery for all will be the only outcome. And for the hunchback jestser at the court of the Duke of Mantua in Italy named Rigoletto, it is.
The villain of this piece the Duke has no scruples. He’s a dastardly depraved playboy for whom fidelity is just another word to be bandied about and everyone bows down to his will without question, like sheep being led to the slaughter.
Just as the rest of the audience who were busy buzzing in expectation when my opera buddy and I arrived, I was looking forward to be totally entranced and excited as I was when I saw Rigoletto last. The music of Verdi a tour de force for the singers, the play itself dramatic and filled with tense moments lit with fire and passion.
Through the glimmering gloom on stage it was easy to pick out the courtiers (chorus) and nobles at the Duke’s court. They dazzled us in their all new rich Renaissance style robes designed by Tracy Grant Lord.
The boys were wearing simple but very glamorous three quarter length coats of varying shades of red with from simple to more elaborate embellishment, giving us an idea of the age without being over the top, disposed over some very trendy stovepipe black trousers.
The courtiers are all meant to be lusty members of the Duke’s entourage in a palace where candlelit dinners and partying, or should we saying enjoying an orgy all night are de riguer during the sixteenth century – nudity and sex scenes included.
Some of the boys coats were left open so we could be impressed by their bare flesh and some very good abbs, while they were busily desiring the courtesans on stage, whose big beautiful bare breasts were flowing freely.
This Rigoletto went back to the future. As promised, a rebirth that delivered some outstanding individual performances. The elements are there; a court full of vipers, a jester, a curse, a kidnapping and a murder.
The setting by Richard Roberts is dramatic – dark and gloomy, with just enough design elements to give us a hint that the action is taking place during a ‘certain’ age, without being overtly traditional.
Edgy, hard but with a contemporary glimmering glamour bent, it was all quite ‘Melbourne’, very understated.
Some of the cast for this new production were gathered from around the world, although local favourite Warwick Fyfe took the role of the court fool Rigoletto. A truly bountiful baritone, Fyfe equipped himself well with a performance that was generally well paced, polished and poignantly real.
Having had a huge success in OA’s version of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle last year by stepping out from behind this familiar and well known but very complex role, Fyfe came back into it with a whole new attitude.
He was not playing the fool so much, or wanting to make us feel sorry for Rigoletto and his dreadful affliction. Instead he was taking us into his confidence. A man clearly confused by the ethics of his age. He’s busy doubting the double standards displayed by all those at court, which he himself undeniably subscribes to at one point; treating women badly.
He finds out that it is fine to be part of a group maligning women when it’s someone else’s wife, but not when it’s your own. He discovers this as the courtiers target his only daughter with malicious intent. She is a very rare flower indeed, causing him to be confused, filled with rage, questioning his previous judgments.
Interestingly, a Rigoletto of the 1950’s would have felt right at home in such a scenario, but now in our more enlightened 21st century, where it is more generally accepted women should be more than just men’s playthings and be also given the respect men demand for themselves, it’s not such a done deal.
It’s a dilemma for Fyfe that he expresses well. His was a sensitive performance, that gained in momentum as the scenes went on, with periods of wonderfully poignant singing, especially in the duet after being reconciled with his lovely daughter Gilda.
As Gilda, the Russian soprano Irina Dubrovskaya was a bright shining star.
What a wonderful voice. She was filled with pathos and her voice had a bell like purity. She delivered her deliciously round beautiful notes with great clarity, sounds that made you fill up with the joy of listening to her.
Her delivery of the most famous solo during the first act ‘Caro Nome’ was completely breathtaking.
The people all around us were in high dudgeon during the intermission all talking about it. It was a performance certainly out of the box, one filled with a beauty that was often blinding in its intensity.
It had depth, colour and above all it soared, taking us into a place where angels like her sing all day long with a radiance that has to be experienced first hand to be believed. She convinced us she wanted to grasp life in both hands and live it well, albeit with gravitas and compassion. If she couldn’t do that then she would rather die.
Dubrovskaya delivered a heartbreaking unforgettable performance, appealing directly to all our emotions. She revealed why an opera such as Rigoletto has the ability to invent itself anew for every generation. Her education at the Mikhail Glinka State Conservatory, Novosibirsk and extensive studies with many luminaries at Moscow, as well as performances with top companies around the world have served her well. She revelled in this role.
As the swaggering Duke who professes to love Gilda, but then casts her aside as you would a bag of rubbish, Italian tenor Gianluca Terranova had a bright and beautiful voice, which took some time to warm up.
When it and he did they both shone well, although perhaps not as brightly in the first act as I felt he could. On opening night his second act singing was noticeably superior to his first, which was to his credit.
By then he had gained his stride, forging ahead into more familiar territory with one of the great climaxes of the piece, Verdi’s popular favourite La Donna Mobile.
While Terranova certainly did this wonderful aria justice, it was still for me not quite as ‘out of the box’ as it always deserves to be, although close.
This is an aria I know well from the tenors in an opera troupe I worked with in Brisbane for many years, who sang it superbly.
It’s a credit to Giuseppie Verdi that I always await its arrival in anticipation of his magic with music, and the breezy uplifting feeling it brings to what is a very dark and sobering story.
There’s a whole backstory to this simply amazing piece of music. Verdi knew from the moment he had put down his pen when completing the work, that it would be a hit.
He had it rehearsed in utmost secrecy prior to opening night to ensure surprise.
The performance of Bass Baritone Daniel Sumegi as the ‘hit man’ for hire Sparafucile, was both robust and defining.
He had both power and presence on stage. His was an imposing force and he dramatically controlled the scenes he was in, especially towards the end where the Duke comes to his seedy club on the edge of town and pays him to bed his sister Maddalena, all the while witnessed by the now grieving Gilda.
Maddalena, played by Sian Pendry, was a fiery temptress in her small but all important role. It is she who urges her brother to spare the handsome stranger (the Duke) who has won her over with his charms. She begs him to kill the ‘ugly’ hunchback instead, wonderful references to Adam being tempted by Eve.
Gilda realises she has been betrayed and sacrifices herself to spare her father when she overhears Sparafucile plotting to kill him. She dies asking Rigoletto for forgiveness. A gut-wrenching ending to a torrid tale.
Instead of being fired up by the flames of passion and all the lust surrounding them, members of the Chorus, especially in the vital first few minutes of the show, in wanting to appear arrogant as members of the dastardly Duke’s court, seemed to be just that and didn’t seem to me to improve much throughout the show.
There is a fine line for the chorus if they are content taking a middling course, which can turn into mediocrity if they are not careful. They needed to own their performance much more. I love the opera with a passion, and have done since I was a child. Sadly they didn’t engage me in their world, despite having very good voices and obviously being extremely capable seasoned performers. They appeared all night to me as if they had just been told off back stage before they came onto it.
Their singing lacked assurance at a time when they should have been oozing it, and confidently. The traditional role of the chorus in drama from being a support group has to also change in step with the times. They need to ‘act’ just as much as the principals do.
For me there was no ‘crispness’ to their part in the production; the set was hard, contemporary sharp edged and up to the minute, but they hadn’t quite got there yet.
The performances of David Corcoran as Borsa, Samuel Dundas as Count Ceprano, Luke Gabbedy as Marullo and Pelham Andrews as Count Monterone while well drawn, also lacked lustre.
They were portraying people meant to be playing hard, fast and loose with the morals of our society and needed to convince us they were men without scruples or, if they had them, were unable to defend them.
I didn’t feel it, and neither co-incidentally did my opera buddy and we’re both big fans. We want to be drawn into all that is happening.
Any opera troupe needs to treat the audience at each performance as if they are coming new to the world of opera. They cannot rest on their laurels.
It’s not easy, in fact it’s downright hard.
However, these are professionals and without a true depth of passion and complete commitment from everyone on stage the audience will go home feeling dissatisfied, even if they are old opera stalwarts and loyal supporters.
Verdi’s music, and the individual performances we discussed previously, were the powerhouse tools for this opening night of Rigoletto.
The musicians of the orchestra also played in fine style.
Renato Palumbo is an experienced established Verdi conductor, and from where we were sitting we could feel him rein his musicians back from a truly bold beginning when they nearly drowned out the singers and sounds from the chorus, to generally produce throughout the evening the beautiful music of Verdi’s wonderful score.
Lock up your daughter and trust nobody is the message of this dark unforgettable tale.
For me this new production was not as powerful as the tried and true contemporary ‘Fellini-esque’ one it has replaced. It hasn’t quite made it yet, but it still could.
Its characters one and all need to allow us to also feel as if they have been dipped into an immersion font and resurfaced reborn, especially if they want to completely deliver the power, the passion and the suspense that a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto deserves.
They need to fully realize the pain and passion of the age. Then they really will allow Australian audiences to hear the finest on the world stage, fully delivering Artistic Director of Opera Australia Lyndon Terracini’s vision.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014
Opera Australia – Rigoletto
RIGOLETTO Warwick Fyfe
DUKE OF MANTUA Gianluca Terranova
GILDA Irina Dubrovskaya
MONTERONE Pelham Andrews
SPARAFUCILE Daniel Sumegi
MADDALENA Sian Pendry
MARULLO Luke Gabbedy
BORSA David Corcoran
CEPRANO Samuel Dundas
GIOVANNA Dominica Matthews
COUNTESS CEPRANO Eleanor Greenwood
PAGE Jodie McGuren
USHER Ryan Sharp
Opera Australia Chorus
DIRECTOR Roger Hodgman
SET DESIGNER Richard Roberts
COSTUME DESIGNER Tracy Grant Lord
LIGHTING DESIGNER Matt Scott
Renato Palumbo (until 26 April)