Bleak and forbidding, Verdi’s Rigoletto continues to be one of the most frequently staged operas. As director Rodger Hodgman writes in the program notes, “in recent times (the work) has been successfully set in a variety of places and times.”
In 2005 the Bavarian State Opera presented a Planet of the Ape take on it. I remember well Opera Australia’s 1991 pop culture-inspired production by Elijah Moshinsky, channelling Fellini, the male chorus wore aviator sunglasses and a tiny green Fiat elicited rapturous applause. This version is just as atmospheric but Hodgman and designer Richard Roberts make sure the music isn’t so easily upstaged. In fact, under conductor Renato Palumbo’s baton, the score simply sparkles.
Opting to return the opera to its roots, the setting is Renaissance Italy, where Verdi placed his reworking of Victor Hugo’s banned play, Le roi s’amuse. This is a dark world framed by cold stone walls and sneering courtiers. Murder and kidnapping is unchecked in this city state. Here we find the libertine Duke (Gianluca Terranova), whose fling with the hunchback jester’s daughter, Gilda (Emma Matthews), spurs her father Rigoletto (Giorgio Caoduro), to an ill-fated revenge plot.
Hodgman, with an impressive track record in straight theatre, presents this triangular relationship with a great deal of dramatic truth. Baritone Caoduro fleshes out in voice and persona, every nuance of a bitter man at odds with the world. Fellow Italian Terranova, projects fine tonal focus and has great stage presence. In opera years, early 40’s is young for tenors, yet Terranova also manages to convince us he is a youthful nobleman, a 16th century playa with few morals, protected by a scrum of hangers on. For me though the truly memorable performance was offered by Matthews, a supple soprano who fully embodies Gilda’s fragility and optimism. Her “Caro nome” was effortless and graceful to the ears.
I wouldn’t say this is the most inspired mounting of Verdi’s early masterpiece, but it is urgent and engaging and some of the stage pictures, enhanced by Tracy Grant Lord’s hybrid red and gold costumes, are stunning. Robert’s simple, double revolving set allows for quick and fluid changes of scene and also reinforces the claustrophobic nature of this society, where no one can elude the fickle will of those with absolute power.
[Top image] Rigoletto. Photo: Jeff Busby
Rigoletto plays at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 24 August. Bookings: 02 9250 777 or www.sydneyoperahouse.com