A magnificent Rigoletto, almost too close for comfort….


Production by NBR New Zealand Opera  / Director : Lindy Hume

Cast:  Warwick Fyfe (Rigoletto) /  Emma Pearson (Gilda) / Rafael Rojas (Duke of Mantua)

Ashraf Sewailam (Sparafucile) / Kristin Darragh (Maddalena) / Rodney Macann (Monterone)

Emma Fraser (Countess) / James Clayton (Ceprano) / Wendy Doyle (Giovanna)

Derek Hill (Borsa) / Matthew Landereth (Marullo)

Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus  (Michael Vinten – Chorus Master)

Vector Wellington Orchestra

Wyn Davies (conductor)

St.James Theatre, Wellington

Saturday 19th May 2012

Very much an opera-going experience for our time (and thus ostensibly at the mercy of the “updating” phenomenon which subjects present-day opera-goers to all kinds of directorial mayhem), this latest NBR New Zealand Opera production of “Rigoletto” seemed to me to be a triumph of substance over flash, of intelligence over sensation-mongering.  One goes to the opera these days ready for anything, expecting to be challenged as much as entertained, and in some cases as affronted as much as delighted by what one encounters (and not always merely on stage). One or two semi-gratuitous “blips” aside, I thought this production delivered a well thought-out and properly mind-provoking  set of scenarios which brought the original impulses of Verdi’s inspiration all-too-close for comfort to aspects of the 21stCentury world we live in.

I know a number of opera-lovers who won’t go to contemporary productions any longer because of what they consider to be “violence done to the original” by presentations which seem deliberately to set out to gratuitously either titillate and cheapen, or else  shock and affront audience sensibilities. While there’s nothing wrong in principle with certain of those processes being brought to bear on people’s experiences in the opera house, it’s obviously too much for some people to stomach when a theatrical work’s traditional ethos is jarringly overlaid with elements suggesting imported and irrelevant agendas.

Nowhere did I feel that director Lindy Hume’s setting of Rigoletto’s story within a contemporary scenario of razz-matazz politics did either Victor Hugo’s original story or Verdi’s own conception of his work any disservice. True, a Mediterranean ethos was suggested by things like the overtly demonstrative and masochistic manner of the Duke, the Mafia-like aspect of his henchmen (though the “gorillas-in-suits” phenomenon is a commonplace, these days), and the dubious “imprimatur” of a Catholic cleric in full regalia among the entourage – a cardinal, or monsignor at the very least! But it was actually a way of giving the problematical “curse”,  brought down upon the head of Rigoletto by the wronged nobleman Monterone,  rather more “clout” than is usually the case with modern recastings of the story. No matter how sophisticated, worldly-wise and updated the setting, such dark, forceful utterances of vengeance  for wrongdoing can still pack a primordial punch. And especially in this context  –  an old-world culture beset by superstitions and haunted by gods both ancient and more recent, whose shadows of influence can still come out at night and linger beyond realms of reason.

And it is night and darkness that largely predominate in the opera’s action – only the third Act  suggests “the morning after”, while the other three parts of the story are played out against the dark. It’s a world of concealment (Rigoletto and his daughter, Gilda), of dark business (the courtiers’ abduction of Gilda), of murderous intent (the assassin, Sparafucile), and of secret trysts (the Duke, first of all with Gilda, then with the assassin’s sister, Maddalena). Right from the beginning, there was darkness at the heart of it all – the curtain slowly lifted as the orchestra tuned up, showing Rigoletto sitting alone in a room in the dark, except for a “home theatre” screen which gave us none too naturalistic footage of ravens during the Prelude  (supposedly portentous imagery, but surely the music alone at this point was doing enough!), fortunately uncharacteristic of the production over the span of the evening.

Contrasted with this was the glitter and sparkle of the Duke’s residence, which the preludial scene “morphed” into cleverly, walls and doors lowered, furniture revolved, and  the darkness flooded with light, all done expertly and unobtrusively. The characters were suddenly animated and vibrant, Warwick Fyfe’s Rigoletto breaking his dark reverie to become the Duke’s energetic factotum,  part evil genius, part buffoon, cynical and dismissive of all, seemingly unmoved by his master’s political success of the evening.  As the libertine Duke, Mexican tenor Rafael Rojas (a splendid Canio in last year’s NBR NZ Opera’s Pagliacci) looked and acted the part from the beginning, revelling in the media attention (the group photograph splendidly choreographed to be “captured” at a musical climax) and readily displaying his lascivious impulses (with plenty of noticeably bimbo-ish allurement close at hand throughout).

It’s the Duke’s voice which is the first of all to compel attention with “Questa o quella”,  delivered by Rojas with plenty of insouciance and nicely ringing top notes, his energies and tones echoed by the Vector Wellington Orchestra’s expert accompanying under conductor  Wyn Davies.  The others, including Rigoletto, have mostly one-line declamations and conversational utterances throughout the act, with strong contributions throughout the opening exchanges from Derek Hill’s Borsa, and then from Matthew Landreth’s Marullo, when breaking the news to the “chapter” regarding Rigoletto’s supposed  mistress.  As well, we were given convincing cameos from both Emma Fraser’s glamorous Countess Ceprano and James Clayton as her boorish husband.

It’s not until right at the end of the act that Warwick Fyfe’s vocal mettle as Rigoletto is really tested, with his mocking  response to the tragic entrance and vengeful utterances of Count Monterone, come to denounce the Duke for misusing his daughter. Unfortunately, that fine singer Rodney Macann seemed to me vocally out of sorts on the night, not able to muster up the power and focus needed to make his curse really sting.  If the intention was to convey a man already broken by his daughter’s downfall at the Duke’s hands, then this Monterone certainly succeeded, but in the process the curse’s power was somewhat muted, and made Rigoletto’s horror-struck reaction a shade pantomime-like. To Fyfe’s credit his character steadfastedly maintained an agitated state right into the heart of the Second Act’s opening, convincing us that Monterone’s pronouncements had indeed struck home.

Back to darkness with the beginning of Act Two, out in the street and next to a bus shelter, from which came the assassin (or, in present-day vernacular, the hit-man) Sparafucile, sung by Egyptian-born Ashraf Sewailam, physically threatening and vocally imposing, his exchanges with Rigoletto beautifully underpinned by rich, grainy string playing and voice-of-doom percussion work from the pit.  The whole scene was brilliantly effective, with its urban jungle backdrop of darkness, against which Warwick Fyfe was finally able to open up his soul and bemoan his fate as a misshapen jester, as well as ruminate further upon the curse. A revolve of the stage and we were taken to Rigoletto’s house, and to his daughter Gilda, Emma Pearson’s silvery tones, physical beauty and add-water vulnerability straightaway capturing audience hearts.

What a psychoanalytical field day a modern family therapist would have with Rigoletto’s relationship with his daughter! Perhaps a casualty of the opera’s updating to the present was Rigoletto’s refusal to allow his daughter any sense of her own identity, a situation one imagines any modern child would rebel against and probably have the means to do something about. Of course, whatever the time or place, such parental strictures produce time-bombs, intensities producing like intensities, whose explosions may be delayed, but not denied – and so the case proved with Gilda, her father’s intransigence merely fuelling the underground fires further.

The Duke’s appearance out of the dark which surrounded Rigoletto’s house, and his complicity with the servant Giovanna to gain entry had a “Marriage of Figaro” air about the proceedings, (and Fyfe’s admonishing of Wendy Doyle’s servant by means of a less-than-convincingly-delivered slap in the face was not a great moment). More important were the passionate declarations of promised love between the Duke and Gilda, those breathless figurations at the end of their farewell duet understandable in the circumstances. Then came Gilda’s beautifully introduced “Caro Nome”, orchestral winds catching in advance the character’s purity of utterance and direct and unequivocal wholeheartedness. It took Emma Pearson’s voice a few measures to settle, but then it found its poise, the singer by the end integrating it all so naturally into a most believable stage presence.  And while the aria spoke of visions of love’s delight, the prevailing dark around the edges of the stage relinquished darker purposes – this time the courtiers from the Duke’s palace, who proceeded, with clever use of powerful, blinding torches, to outmanoeuvre Rigoletto, and abduct his daughter.

By this time we had surrendered ourselves to the drama entirely, irrespective of time or place, so focused were the different elements which made up the experience, to the point where the nude figure on the Duke’s couch at the beginning of Act Three scarcely made any lasting impact as the form stood up, re-vested and moved away. More to the point was the Duke’s lament at losing Gilda, as he had found the house empty – Rojas’s pitching of the notes showed some strain, at this point, though his interactions with the spry, well-drilled chorus seemed to refocus his efforts. In the following scene with the chorus, during which Rigoletto reveals that Gilda is not his lover but his daughter, I thought Fyfe extremely fine, terracing his intensities unerringly, and conveying the sense of someone in the grip of a deadly obsession,  vowing after the brief reappearance of the disillusioned and downcast figure of Monterone that he, Rigoletto, shall avenge the wrongdoing of the Duke once and for all.

One doubts whether there exists a more perfectly- and potently-conceived final operatic act than this of “Rigoletto”. It abounds with imaginative touches, such as the wordless chorus intoning in places the moaning of the wind, a haunting, scalp-pricking effect. The music surprises us with things like the Duke’s famous “La Donna e Mobile” aria, and afterwards the wonderful vocal Quartet, an episode which both unites and underlines the barriers between two sets of people, while the situations unpredictably swerve and double back on themselves. Fittingly, the prevailing dark has the last word, as the story’s convolutions lead to the death of Gilda instead of the Duke as the jester intended. As the assassin Sparafucile’s sister, Maddalena, whom the Duke makes love to and who enables his life to be saved, Kristen Darragh exuded a vamp-like allure, along with an ever-burgeoning murderous determination to sacrifice another person for the sake of the life of the Duke, her new lover. Naturally, heartrendingly, the other person is Gilda, the graphic depiction of her despatch, fittingly by Maddalena herself (often not shown onstage), both shocking and piteous, but I thought not inappropriate.

Hence Rigoletto’s moment of intended triumph turns to tragedy, a cruel twist of fate I thought brilliantly, searingly conveyed by Warwick Fyfe, with at first almost public-servant detachment when taking receipt of the body he imagines is the Duke’s, but allowing flashes of anticipation of his revenge’s fulfillment, before cooly gathering his thoughts and energies to focus on the act of despatch – only to hear the Duke’s voice right at that moment of owning his triumph – what devastation, what new anguish followed! As with Shakespeare and other great theatre, we may already know the end, but the situation has the power, as here to move us anew, because we are not as we were – and therefore it touches us in different places every time. Warwick Fyfe and Emma Pearson, as Rigoletto and his dying, transfigured Gilda, their characters borne upwards and onwards as throughout by wonderful orchestral playing from the Wellington Orchestra and conductor Wyn Davies, spoke volumes to us at the end on behalf of all who had contributed to a marvellous production,  with so many things to say – a stunning achievement by Lindy Hume and her entire creative team.









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