When I first began writing about opera I was advised that the music was great but the plots were a bit far fetched. I have indeed found that to be the case and surely no one can be accused of stretching the bounds of credibility more than Guiseppe Verdi in his opera Rigoletto. The work centres upon a Duke who is implicated in a sex scandal involving an under age girl. This could possibly have happened in 1851 when the opera was first staged but is totally out of the question these days. Er, hang on a minute………
As I have said before, I write as a novice operagoer for the benefit of those of the same ilk. This means that I don’t do any homework before the event but take it as presented. If we were aficionados I am sure that we would want to know every last detail about what we were going to see, right down to the inside leg measurement of the lead tenor, but when all is said and done, this is a medium of entertainment and I accept it as such. I mention the above as this is one of those productions where a bit of background knowledge would come in handy, but could also confuse you more. I will elaborate on that later.
The plot of the piece as performed here is that the Duke of Mantua, a womanising misogynist, has a courtesan named Rigoletto, who assists him in his quest for the ladies whilst, at the same time, mocking their husbands. One of his previous conquests was the daughter of Count Monterone who, in the opening scene, gate crashes a party and puts a curse on both the Duke and Rigoletto.
As well as living at the Duke’s palace, Rigoletto has his own house just outside of town where he is seen by Marullo, another of the Duke’s cohorts, with a young woman. Marullo and a couple of his friends decide that they would kidnap Rigoletto’s girlfriend and take her to the Duke as a prank. The Duke has already seen the girl in church and had her marked down as a future conquest so, when she is brought to him he takes the opportunity to molest her. The girl, Gilda, is not Rigoletto’s girlfriend but his daughter whom he has kept in the safe house to make sure she is not targeted by the Duke. In a twist of fate he meets the kidnappers on their way to abduct Gilda but they convince him that it is Countess Ceprano they are after and he agrees to help them with their venture.
When Rigoletto discovers what has really happened he decides to take revenge. Monterone is executed and so he is left to avenge his daughter’s attack by hiring a hit-man, Sparafucile. They agree that the assassination will take place in a run down part of town where Sparafucile lives with his sister, Maddalena. The plan is that she will lure the Duke to the proposed crime scene and her brother will commit the act. Rigoletto decides that he will take Gilda to witness this seduction as she is in love with the Duke and he wanted to show her that he was never going to be faithful to her. Gilda dons a disguise and they hide whilst the deed is done. The problem is that Maddelena falls for the Duke herself and persuades her brother to kill a passer-by instead in order to save the Duke and still get the second instalment of the blood money by putting the corpse in a sleeping bag and passing it off as that of the Duke.
Under normal circumstances this would have been where I stopped so as not to spoil the denouement but you could see it coming a mile off so, either skip the next paragraph – or don’t!
As you would guess, the next passer-by is Gilda who is still in disguise but has returned to the intended crime scene to see the Duke once more. Instead of him she meets Sparafucile and is stabbed before being put into the sleeping bag. Rigoletto returns a little later to insist on throwing the body into the river to make sure that the job is done. It is then he hears the voice of the Duke and so checks the sleeping bag only to discover his daughter. She is still alive but dies in his arms. The curse has taken its toll.
Welcome back – or not!
Returning to my introduction I found some of the aspects of this new production by Femi Elufowoju jr to be rather confusing. Not being fluent in Italian I was reading the translation on a screen at the side of the stage. There were references to Rigoletto’s deformity which was odd as Eric Greene, who plays the eponymous character, is as fine a figure of a man you could wish to see. In the first scene he is getting ready for a party clad in a super cool dinner jacket making it look as though he were auditioning to be the next James Bond. There were also insinuations that he was the court laughing stock, which was far from the image portrayed here.
Having done my research before writing this piece I saw in the programme that it is based on a Victor Hugo novel wherein the hero was a ‘buffoon and a hunchback’. Because of censorship issues when it was first performed, some changes were made by various directors, amongst which was that the hump would be discarded, a move which meant that Verdi and his associate, Piave distanced themselves from those interpretations. I found it odd then that something so intrinsic to the original and close to the writer’s heart, should once again be changed. In a way I am pleased that the change was made as the ending was sad enough with a strong man, it would have been heartbreaking had it been a tragic figure.
In addition to the changes to the lead character, the action has been moved to the present day and is performed by a multi-cultural cast. Both of these work well, indeed, the first would not be credible (or as credible as you can get with this storyline) without the second. Count Monterone, the legendary bass-baritone Sir Willard White, appears in Nigerian garb to deliver his curse as they are taken much more seriously there than here, thus adding heft to the situation.
We were left in no doubt as to the timeframe as, right from the outset at a party in the Duke’s palace, we were bombarded with references, from police in stab vests to a Deliveroo cyclist. There was so much going on here that I was having trouble working out what I should be looking at whilst trying to read the libretto at the same time. Sometimes less is more.
The safe house, had been decorated extravagantly to cater for the every whim of Gilda, the stunning soprano Jasmine Habersham, complete with balloons, larger than life zebra and a stuffed toucan.
As a counterpoint to the opulence of the palace and the safe house, the rendezvous for the proposed murder was as bleak as you could get, being a stage full of junk including a clapped out MGB-GT.
The above reservations and observations aside, I thought that the piece was absolutely brilliant and it was a privilege to be in the same room as the flawless singers and the magnificent orchestra conducted by Garry Walker. The staging, choreography, lighting and sound were darned near perfect as well.
There is one other performer I would like to mention and that is Callum Thorpe who sang the part of Sparfucile. He not only looked every inch the assassin but he has the richest bass voice I have heard.
I cannot recommend this opera enough, especially to newbies as it is entertaining as well as having arias you will know and singers that you should. Please note, the part of Count Monterone will be taken by Byron Jackson on 9th March performance.
For tickets please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on/rigoletto/#book
Featured image provided by Opera North