Rigoletto (Opera North)
March 16 2022 (also March 19 in Nottingham; March 23 and 26 in Newcastle; April 1 in Hull)
Theatre Royal, Nottingham
Review: William Ruff
A Rigoletto which opens ears and eyes to the murky depths beneath the ultra-tuneful surface.
Opera North brought their new production of Verdi’s Rigoletto to Nottingham this week. It may be an opera brimming over with hummable tunes but it also shines a light into life’s murkier corners. The title character is a court jester who hates his boss, hires an assassin to kill him only to get his beloved daughter killed instead.
You never know quite what to expect in Rigoletto productions these days. I recall friends of mine parking their young children in front of a recently televised version only to discover an orgy going on in the opening scene complete with full-frontal nudity. I hasten to add that this does not happen in ON’s production, although it is full of surprises and it’s just about as non-traditional as it gets. After all, when did you last see a life-size model of a zebra on stage sporting pink floral garlands?
Rigoletto was the opera when Verdi became Verdi. He found a musical voice all of his own – and he created characters of depth and complexity. And Opera North have created a landmark production too. Director Femu Elufowoju jr and Set Designer Rae Smith have ensured that, no matter how many times you see Rigoletto in the future, you will never forget this one.
Take the opening party scene: the Duke of Mantua is a loadsamoney Essex boy who uses his money not only to buy lots of bling and expensively framed pictures of himself but also to gather a crowd of cronies who are happy to do his bidding as long as the Duke keeps paying their bills. You know he’s corrupt from the get-go but it’s easy to be seduced: he’s funny, full of energy and he thinks of his staff as well as his pals. When the party is in full swing a Diliveroo man cycles onto the stage carrying pizzas for the Duke’s security staff. It’s one of those unforgettable moments, a tad distracting from the main action but a nice idea and a perceptive comment on character.
Every stage picture in this production grabs the attention, takes risks and enhances the drama. Rigoletto has infantilised Gilda, his daughter, hence the zebra (on which she falls asleep) in a bedroom equipped with fluorescent balloons and toucan on a swing. The last scene is made even nastier than usual. Gilda, even after having been seduced by the Duke, sacrifices her life to save him from an assassin hired by her father. This all happens amid a landscape of unspeakable bleakness, of burnt-out cars, prostitutes and routine murder. In lesser hands all this (and the productions obvious resonances with the MeToo/Black Lives Matter movements) could all seem bolted on to Verdi’s vision. However, here they are an organic part of it, Opera North scoring one of those hits where everything fits, grabs the audience by the throat and opens ears and eyes to the depths beneath the ultra-tuneful surface.
The whole team is strong. Eric Greene is a towering presence as Rigoletto and Jasmine Habersham an outstanding Gilda (almost unbearably moving in her death scene). Roman Arndt’s vocal and physical energy as the Duke help to explain why an innocent girl would die for such a money-obsessed, egocentric villain. Callum Thorpe is the sinister, dark-voiced, utterly ruthless assassin Sparafucile. And making a brief – but utterly scene-stealing – appearance is the great Sir Willard White as Count Monterone, the man whose curse on Rigoletto drives the plot towards its deeply painful conclusion. All the other principals and the highly individualised Chorus contribute detail and depth to Elufowoju’s ground-breaking vision.
The orchestra shines both as an ensemble and as soloists. Wednesday’s conductor, Patrick Milne, drew some lovely sounds from them, sensitive to the drama’s extremes of emotional temperature. The audience didn’t hold back when it came to the curtain calls at the end: they roared their approval for what had been an exhilarating example of creative teamwork.
Duke of Mantua Roman Arndt
Rigoletto Eric Greene
Gilda Jasmine Haberham
Sparafucile Callum Thorpe
Maddalena Alyona Abramova
Giovanna Hazel Croft
Count Monterone Sir Willard White
Marullo Themba Mvula
Matteo Borsa Campbell Russell
Count Ceprano Ross McInroy
Countess Ceprano Molly Barker
Usher/Bodyguard Gordon D. Shaw
Page Helen Évora
Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North
Conductor Patrick Milne (March 16) Garry Walker
Director Femi Elufowoju jr
Set/Costume Designer Rae Smith
Lighting Designer Howard Hudson
Movement Laila Diallo
Fight Director Alison de Burgh