Intense, heartfelt and involving – Verdi’s Rigoletto from Eternity Opera at the Hannah Playhouse

Eternity Opera presents:
GIUSEPPE VERDI – Rigoletto (Opera in three Acts)

Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave (after Victor Hugo)
English translation by Ruth and Thomas Martin

Rigoletto                James Clayton
Gilda                       Hannah Catrin-Jones
The Duke               Boyd Owen
Sparafucile            Robert Lindsay
Maddalena            Jess Segal
Monterone            Roger Wilson
Giovanna               Ruth Armishaw
Count Marullo      Orene Tiai
Count Ceprano     Minto Fung
Countess Ceprano  Karyn Andreassend
Matteo Borsa       Chris Berentson
Court Usher          Olivia Sheat
A Page                    Alexandra Woodhouse-Appleby
Gang Members     Chris Anderson,  Paul Bothwell, Nikita Crosby
Richard Dean, Jessica Mercer-Short, Garth Norman

Director:  Alex Galvin
Assistant Director:  Laura Loach
Music Director:  Matthew Ross
Producers:  Emma Beale & Minto Fung
Production/Stage Manager:  Joel Rudolf
Costume Designer:  Sally Gray
Lighting Designer:  Haami Hawkins

Eternity Orchestra
Leader:  Vivian Stephens
Repetiteur:  Catherine Norton

Hannah Playhouse, Wellington

Saturday, 23rd August, 2019 (until 31st August)

I can’t think of a better instance of a small opera company bringing forth by dint of its own efforts a production with the commitment and calibre of Eternity Opera’s production of “Rigoletto”, which we saw at Wellington’s Hannah Playhouse on Friday evening. I won’t go as far as proclaiming this “the best so far” of the company’s productions in this venue, as comparisons of that sort are odious for all kinds of reasons – but I certainly felt I’d witnessed nothing better overall than this from the company in the past.

Right from the orchestral prelude’s beginning we were riveted, held by the playing and conductor Matthew Ross’s control of the music’s tensions, the atmosphere dark and un-nerving, everything generated by the insistent motifs and their sharply-focused realisation – the brass were spot-on and unrelenting, the strings and winds coiled and uncoiled with sinister intent, like a snake preparing to strike, and the percussion startled with its force at the climax and its even more disturbing muted after-presence. Then came the stunning volte-face of the “party-music”, the Duke’s palace bursting with sounds of fantastic life and energy – a great beginning! On-stage, I thought the party looked somewhat tentative at the outset, with the chorus members (in modern dress) taking a while to “loosen up” movement-wise  – everybody needed to “hit the ground running” more confidently, and mirror the energies of the orchestral playing and the Duke’s free-wheeling licentiousness – however, to compensate, the singing (in English) was alive and dynamic, which helped it all grow most satisfactorily as the scene went on.

I thought Boyd Owen’s Duke looked and sounded totally convincing from his first entry, emanating self-confidence in all respects, his energies transcending the production’s somewhat bland non-hierarchical appearance – a playboy despot, in fact. His “Questo e quella” (“This or that girl”) had all the casual insouciance of the practised lecher to go with the exuberance of his freely-ringing tones. By contrast, James Clayton’s compelling Rigoletto cleverly “insinuated” his way onto the stage, his almost Dadaist garb mocking convention in accord with his character, and heightening the “edge” of his acerbic exchanges with the courtiers – the character at once provocative, volatile and reckless.

The appearance of Count Monterone (Roger Wilson) an aggrieved nobleman whose daughter had been seduced and abandoned by the Duke was a splendid moment, with the Count’s curse (a stumbling block for most modern adaptations of the opera) here made properly baleful and even frightening by a convincing combination of the singer’s commitment and his would-be victim Rigoletto’s terrified reaction. After a gripping chorus response to this, the voices generating incredible vehemence in their rebuttal of the Count’s maledictions, the Act’s second scene stole in, here cleverly integrating the characters of the killer-for-hire, Sparafucile, and his sister-accomplice Maddalena, among the party-guests, so that they seemed almost like “an enemy within”, rather than ostensibly sinister night-creatures. Robert Lindsay as Sparafucile kept his voice smooth and steady during his confrontation with the jester, allowing the disturbing accompaniment of solo strings and throbbing bass drum to underpin the horror of his glib-toned, but deadly message for Rigoletto, still distracted by Monterone’s curse, but interested despite himself – the scene all the more macabre here, in its manicured, almost genteel aspect!

Clayton superbly laid bare the jester’s character in his soliloquy which followed, reiterating the curse, railing against his deformity and execrating the courtiers who mocked him earlier, before giving himself over entirely to his daughter, Gilda, here sung by Hannah Catrin-Jones with a presence and intensity that ideally matched the vividly-wrought character of her besotted but fearful father.  How fortunate we were to have such a triumvirate of singers in this work’s leading roles! As she did in her portrayal of “Madama Butterfly” last year for the company, Catrin-Jones “owned” the character of Gilda with a vocal “presence” and dramatic totality of commitment that rightly put intensity of feeling before every other consideration, in places even beauty of tone – and in doing so she again won our hearts and sympathies.

The singing and playing during this scene did full justice to the composer’s remarkable combination of quicksilver movement and heartfelt emotion – Rigoletto’s tenderness and anxiety at odds with one another, Gilda’s concern for her father set against her interest in a young man she had seen at church, a secret she shared with the maid, Giovanna (sensitively and lyrically portrayed by Ruth Armishaw), and the young man’s sudden, covert entrance into the courtyard in pursuit of Gilda (the Duke in disguise, of course, astonished to learn that the girl is Rigoletto’s daughter, but unremitting in his efforts to “get the girl”!) – supporting the singers’ efforts all the way was Matthew Ross’s conducting, generating playing from his musicians by turns as thrustful and exciting or lyrical and atmospheric as required.

The “no-holds-barred” scene between the disguised Duke and Gilda was a tour de force of emotional outpouring on the part of both characters, vocal elegance mattering less than the raging flow of feeling, carrying us all along in its flow – what a mountain for singers to climb! – especially on the part of the tenor, with Boyd Owen’s voice seemingly at full stretch in most places in places but his character totally convincing dramatically! Gilda’s well-known “Caro nome” (Dearest name) in the wake of the Duke’s departure restored beauty and elegance to the proceedings, Catrin-Jones’s exquisite singing most sensitively supported by the orchestra, the winds in particular partners in fragrant evocation, despite a moment or two’s imprecision between singer and players towards the end.

Great work followed from the chorus, the nobles gathering, in disguise, to carry off whom they believed to be Rigoletto’s mistress, encountering him outside the house and deluding him into thinking they were playing a trick on someone else! The energy and thrust of the singing and playing carried us irresistibly along to the point where Rigoletto suddenly heard Gilda’s voice as she was “taken” by the intruders, thereupon tearing off his “mask” and discovering she was gone.

More full-bloodedly ardent singing from the Duke at the Second Act’s beginning – what a role this is! – (though I’ve often thought Verdi a little inconsistent in his characterisation, here  – was this genuine feeling for the missing Gilda he was expressing?) Boyd Owen was again unfailingly sonorous and romantic in vocal feeling, his anguish transformed to joy upon hearing of Gilda’s conveyance to his clutches. Rigoletto, by comparison, was all care and sorrow, turning to anger as he revealed to the courtiers that they had stolen his daughter, James Clayton’s vocal range and depth of emotion overwhelming, the flood of feeling generated, together with weeping strings and plangent cor anglais, breaking all hearts! Gilda’s sudden entrance from the Duke’s bedroom occasioned an oboe solo of equal poignancy, its phrases movingly matched by Catrin-Jones’ achingly lovely tones – as befitted one of opera’s most heartfelt scenes, this performance delivered the sorrow and anguish of it all in spadefuls!

Here, too, was amply-realised justification for the sparseness of the set – unobtrusive in earlier scenes, but absolutely perfect in this instance, with shadows as well as “substance” resonating on or in front of both walls so dramatically – as if there was nowhere, emotionally, to hide – incredibly moving, thanks also to the perfectly-judged lighting on those bare walls!

By general agreement, though, it’s the final Act that’s thought to be one of its composer’s greatest achievements – and here it certainly maintained the voltages from what had gone before, if channelling them into more overtly sinister and potentially murderous realms.  Perhaps it was the fault of what seemed an out-and-out marathon of vocal effort by Boyd Owen up to that point of the evening, but his “La donna e mobile” (Women are fickle), felt to me a shade sedate compared with the volatile energies of the First-Act’s “Questo e Quella”, and even the orchestral accompaniment seemed to lack the last amount of “fizz” – however, not so the magnificent Quartet, which followed soon after! –  here, the voices realised as heartfelt and wide-ranging an expression of both individual and concerted emotion as was one’s right to expect, Jess Segal’s Maddalena given her chance to shine alongside the three principals, which her voice managed with great aplomb.

Though everything from that moment onwards moved with the surety and inevitability of a Greek tragedy towards its brutal outcome, the performances had such here-and-now spontaneity, it was as if we were seeing something, however well-known, for the first time and willing against hope the impossible to happen and the guiltless be spared rather than sacrificed. So tense, so charged was the ambience when Rigoletto was left alone with the sack containing what he thought – in fact what he gleefully TOLD us – was the Duke’s body, that when we suddenly heard the latter’s voice singing his “signature tune” offstage, somebody in the audience audibly giggled – not through disrespect, I felt, but obviously out of either shock or sheer release of tension – I thought it a kind of tribute to the performance’s cathartic power, as well as to the production in general, AND to the composer and his librettist (not forgetting, of course, Victor Hugo!).

I’ve heard ample testimony from others since regarding the overwhelming effect of this production upon those who were ‘there”. The three principal singers, those in the supporting roles, both individual and chorus, the conductor, Matthew Ross and his musicians, director Alex Galvin and his assistant, Laura Loach, the producers and their various technicians, all contributed to what seemed to me like a fantastically interactive and ensembled effort, to produce something resoundingly memorable and eminently worthwhile. To hear, then, a whisper, as I did, of Eternity Opera facing the prospect of having to struggle to receive the necessary support in oncoming years for more productions such as these simply beggars belief. Though opinions differ as to the factors that contribute to a “civilised society”, my view inclines towards support for the arts being as necessary for the greater good of humanity as measures which provide for us air we can breathe and water we can drink – a truly humanising kind of sustenance. May Eternity Opera be assured of continuance, to furnish for us more of such sustenance!







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