Femi Elufowoju Jr’s interpretation of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1851 masterpiece for Opera North by and large works although I’m yet to be convinced about the zebra.
We open as the Duke (Roman Arndt) leads his courtiers in drinking and debauchery whilst his jester, Rigoletto (Eric Greene) mocks all those around. The arrival of Count Monterone (Byron Jackson) in a failed attempt to save his daughter results in a curse on the Duke and Rigoletto.
Rigoletto is tormented by the curse, and we discover he has a daughter, Gilda (Jasmine Habersham) whom he jealously guards, but the Duke has already spied and fallen for her – or has he? The courtiers have also tired of Rigoletto’s antics at court and under the steer of Marullo (Themba Mvula), they trick him before carrying Gilda off to the palace.
Rigoletto arrives desperate to save his daughter from ruin and we are treated to a beautiful moment of reconciliation between them. When Monterone appears and retracts his curse on the Duke, Rigoletto assures him it will still come to fruition when he seeks revenge.
Rigoletto engages assassin Sparafucile (Callum Thorpe) with his sister, Maddalena (Alyona Abramova), used as a lure for the Duke so that Gilda may see the true behaviour of the man she believes she loves. Dramatic gestures abound as we hurtle towards a tragic end in the powerful and moving final act.
Rae Smith’s simple staging was effective with a monochrome effect at the start giving way to an explosion of richness and colour in set, costume and lighting as we entered the court, with a managed decline as we progressed through the acts cleverly echoing the main character’s fall, although it was a shame to see it succumb to opera’s recent obsession with having a car on stage.
There was strong choreography from Laila Diallo and the abduction sequence in Act II and its subsequent retelling in Act III were a delight.
The performance was subdued in its opening, but the orchestra soon sprung to life under conductor Gary Walker with the wind writing particularly well played, although the voices required the injection of something special which duly came in Act II with a standout performance from Habersham who beautifully captured the sweetness and childish innocence of her character before re-emerging as a damaged young woman reflecting on an unrequited love that run right to her core. Her singing was beautiful throughout and raised the game of those who performed around her.
Arndt has the character of the Duke to a tee so it was frustrating that for much of the piece his voice didn’t impose itself in a similar way although his solo and duet with Habersham in Act II brought it to life before tailing off again.
Greene is a light-voiced Rigoletto, in spite of his obvious physical presence which I would have liked to have seen him use more, and his diction could do with a little more punch although his duets with Habersham saw him equally lifted. In contrast Jackson gave us power and presence with aplomb, serving to demonstrate what a good catch he was.
Thorpe was impressively ruthless and the Act IV aria where he sings with Abramova and Habersham served up one of the moments of the evening as it combined their voices alongside an intricate lighting array, by Howard Hudson, and the power of the orchestra to create a real thunder.
A special mention to Mvula who captured Marullo’s character perfectly and I look forward to seeing his future work.
Rigoletto is one of Opera North’s current touring productions, full details at https://www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on
In a touching moment, tonight’s performance began with the orchestra playing the Ukrainian national anthem and the audience stood as one as we acknowledged the resilience and courage on display in recent days.
Reviewer: Mark Davoren
Reviewed: 9th March 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★