Opera Queensland has triumphed over a series of set-backs to present a magnificent production of Rigoletto as its final show for 2009. Saturday night’s performance of Verdi’s masterpiece was a stunning night of opera at its most powerful.
OQ’s management must have wondered at times whether the curse of Monterone at the heart of the opera had seeped through the wings to the company itself. Of singers cast for the three major roles announced at the season launch a year ago, only one took to the stage on opening night. Serious illness sadly forced the withdrawal of baritone Michael Lewis as Rigoletto shortly before rehearsals began (to be replaced by veteran John Bolton Wood), while on opening night American tenor Steven Harrison as the Duke was laid low by the Spring flu doing the rounds of Brisbane. Fortunately Harrison recovered in time for subsequent performances. (Understudy Virgilio Marino did a commendable performance for the opening.)
It all led understandably to a slightly shaky start. But a week into the run, and OQ had definitely hit its straps. This is as fine a production, musically and dramatically, as Brisbane has seen.
Director Elijah Moshinsky’s ambitious and costly concept of this work with its huge revolving set, first staged for Opera Australia in 1991 and seen in Brisbane in 1994, has lost none of its power and brilliance. Local director Cathy Dadd has done very well in breathing new life into the production, and the performers who people the stage are convincing in their portrayals of characters in a Federico Fellini-inspired world. (This has been a great year for Moshinsky fans in Brisbane, with his version of La traviata seen earlier this year.) The design is by Michael Yeargan, while the lighting design of Robert Bryan is reproduced effectively by Cliff Bothwell.
Verdi gets and deserves most of the glory, but let’s not forget Francesco Maria Piave, the librettist, nor the great French novelist and playwright, Victor Hugo, whose banned play, Le roi s’amuse, provided the literary basis of the opera.
John Bolton Wood’s strong baritone and versatile acting skills yield an excellent Rigoletto. His experience in comic roles give him an edge in depicting the entertaining side of the nasty clown (e.g. waggling his backside to insult an adversary at court), but he also conveys to great dramatic effect the part of the anguished father whose only hope is through his daughter.
It is a privilege to hear American tenor Steven Harrison in the role of the Duke of Mantua. He has a voice of subtle range and colour, a beautiful instrument with a lovely mellowness and richness as well as the power to project over the top of chorus and orchestra.
Emma Matthews dazzles as Gilda. Her performance during the second half of Act 1, where she is called upon to sing almost continuously, is perhaps the highlight of this production, as she duets first with Bolton Woods and then Harrison, concluding with her gentle version of “Caro nome”. She sings and acts absolutely beautifully.
David Parkin as Sparafucile displays the rich bass and acting we first glimpsed on ABC television at his Opera-tunity auditions, though he’s perhaps too “tall, dark and handsome” for this role he needs an evil make-over. Mezzo-soprano Roxane Hislop brings verve to her role as as Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena, contributing splendidly to the great quartet, though she perhaps could have been costumed a little more seductively.
Anne Fulton as Gilda’s maid, Giovanna, brings her lovely mezzo voice to the role, and she also manages a mean demonstration of pasta cooking. In other roles, baritone Jason Barry-Smith and tenor Virgilio Marino make a splendid contribution as the courtiers Marullo and Borsa, Andrew Collis is a dark and vengeful Monterone, while Peter Axford sings the similarly vengeful Ceprano effectively. Sophie Wotton is a graceful Countess Ceprano.
The chorus prepared by Richard Lewis sing and act lustily, while the array of “supernumeraries” and actresses add great flavor and color to the ballroom scenes, where it was good to see the twist make a come-back. The Queensland Orchestra under Giovanni Reggioli’s direction are rich and strong, with wonderful brass and percussion work as well as splendid pizzicato from the strings.
There are some absolutely rivetting dramatic moments in this opera: the scene where Rigoletto reveals that the abducted girl is his daughter, emptying out his attachcase of photos and memorabilia; Gilda’s telling her father without words what the duke has done to her; the storm and the build-up of tension in Act 3, including the sparking and fusing of the outside light to Sparafucile’s inn at the time of the murder.
Some moments work not so well for example, the elaborate abduction of Gilda by the mob is generally well played out, but perhaps Gilda could be showing more signs of struggle as she is carried out of her home. Moreover, with her buttoned-up collared dress and cardigan, she looks a little too dowdy to have caught the eye of the duke.
I’m sure the audience would have loved to show their appreciation to the other principals, the men’s chorus and the non-singing performers who contributed to a dazzling show. It was a little anticlimactic for the final bows to be taken only by the Act 3 principals and conductor. No doubt the rest of them were baggsing first drinks at the party. Certainly they all deserve to feel relieved and happy.