Rigoletto is the ideal opera to banish the ritual scepticism about this seductive, all-encompassing art, and no production could do it better than this one. The opera is drawn from one of Victor Hugo’s best plays, which has all the elements of a great tragedy: substantial, believable, if improbable, characters who have weaknesses that provide inadequate defence against evil or misfortune.
Verdi appeased censors by moving it from Paris to Mantua and making the libertine French king a fictitious duke, and so Lindy Hume’s intelligent and coherent production, which makes reference to Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy, is in well-mapped territory. The cast is disposed with energy and naturalness. There are many striking and imaginative stage effects: a well-used revolve; a video screen that presents multiple images of contemporary events, objects and people; but most powerfully a threatening raven that beats its black wings, giving substance to the curse that hooks into the tale’s medieval roots.
The body of courtiers is handled balletically and the taut chorus work is chillingly elegant (under chorus director Michael Vinten), the lighting reflects the scenes in startling contrasts, while the massive set is dominated by a palatial gilded door. Even before registering the excellence of the singing came the thrill of an electrifying Vector Wellington Orchestra that drove through the inspired score, supporting and dramatically colouring the emotions embedded in the vocal lines of solos and ensembles. I had intended to lament the continuing practice of using too many singers from overseas, when New Zealand boasts of producing so many who are gifted, but the excellence of the principals made me retract, for I could think of few who might have fitted as well. (There are no locals in the main production jobs, either.)
The most prominent New Zealand singers are Kirstin Darragh, vivid as the hooker Maddalena, who might have stepped in from the establishment next door to the St James Theatre; Rodney Macann, who sings Monterone with some unease; and Emma Fraser as Countess Ceprano. But Warwick Fyfe and Rafael Rojas, as Rigoletto and the Duke respectively, are utterly commanding in vocal and dramatic interpretation and powerful projection; Gilda is sung by the excellent high soprano Emma Pearson; and Ashraf Sewailam is an incomparable Sparafucile.
Rigoletto is one of the greatest operas, not the least diminished by its popularity, on account of both words and music. This production, under the supple, impassioned musical direction of Wyn Davies, has so many strengths it is a must-see. In many decades of opera-going, I have rarely felt such complete delight in every aspect of a production.
RIGOLETTO, by Giuseppe Verdi, NBR New Zealand Opera, directed by Lindy Hume, conducted by Wyn Davies, St James Theatre, Wellington, May 19-26; Aotea Centre, Auckland, June 7-17.