Long before “Les Miz” became one of the great Broadway musicals, the same author, Victor Hugo, had scripted the basis of a rather greater musical drama, Rigoletto. First performed as an opera 150 years ago in Venice, Verdi’s masterpiece reappears in Brisbane in a fascinating new production by the Australian Opera’s touring arm, OzOpera.

Well not quite new. This production was launched just over a year ago (July 2000) at Moonee Ponds, of all places, and has since been cavalcading around the southern states. And its greatest challenges lie ahead, with performances in Mt Isa and then the length and breadth of the Northern Territory and Western Australia between now and September.

It’s great to see opera being taken to the people on this scale, and this is a good production to capture the imagination of people outback who have so few opportunities to see professional performing arts at this level.

To make the whole travelling circus feasible, it’s small in terms of the number of people involved: only a dozen singers and a dozen instrumentalists. It’s being called a “chamber opera” (a rather inexact term, with various interpretations).

The drama centres on the unpleasant court jester and hunchback Rigoletto (Victor Hugo must have had a thing about hunchbacks: at about the same time he wrote this story, he published his tale about Quasimodo of Notre Dame). Rigoletto has an innocent and beautiful daughter, Gilda, lusted after by the womanising and also thoroughly unpleasant Duke of Mantua.

It’s set in around the 1960s, the period costume of the first scene being revealed as fancy dress. This produces some anomalies (e.g. I thought court jesters had been replaced by stand-up comedians by then), but generally works well, the Duke and his courtiers transformed into Mafia-like gangsters.

The sets are to some extent designed to confine the action, giving a “busy” impression despite the small number of performers. Techniques like the use of mirror walls and screens help this effect. The sets also project a menacing, claustrophobic aura which underline the kind of world we have entered.

Roger Hodgman’s direction is quite superb. The intensity of the drama demands full attention from the first moments, with the groping duke at work on his latest conquest, the nasty courtiers working on means of humiliating Rigoletto, and the dramatic entry of Monterone with his prophetic curse. In subsequent scenes, the interaction between Rigoletto and Gilda are consistently touching in their setting, as is the rivetting “vile damned race” scene where Rigoletto is victimised by the macho henchmen of the duke when trying to find and protect his daughter. I have never seen better for this scene with choruses many times larger.

Similarly, the lighting effects are excellent, providing brooding contrasts of shades of darkness and, with good sound work, a top quality electric storm at the climax of the second act.

The acting rises to the occasion: group interactions work better than is often the case with larger choruses, while the principals are convincing. Roger Howell’s Rigoletto and Rebecca Collins’ Gilda successfully portrayed their mutual affection in the midst of their differing fears of unknown threats.

For an opera to be taken to the people, there could be no choice but the vernacular. Opera in English can, paradoxically, inhibit understanding. I prefer my Verdi in Italian, especially with the aid of surtitles (and my Italian friends tell me they depend on the titles too)! My fears on this score seemed realised early in this production, when much of the dialogue was lost. But it improved rapidly and was certainly never a problem in individual work. In this the singers were helped with a lively contemporary translation by James Fenton (a British journalist!). (At one stage the Duke castigates the “bastards” who have interrupted him.)

The diminished chorus holds up well, with each singer obviously having plenty of output, helped by the Conservatorium Theatre’s relative intimacy and excellent acoustic. Verdi’s multi-part chorus lines even seem enhanced when single voices carry the lines: the harmonies are precise and clear.

The orchestra (drawn from the Queensland Orchestra) is tiny without being tinny (though a couple more strings would have been nice), and has obviously been well drilled by conductor Julia de Plater.

Of the principals on Monday night, Adrian McEniery’s Duke did not seem as confident as I would have hoped. Rebecca Collins’ Gilda was consistently delightful in ensemble and solo work, rising well to the vocal challenges of “Dearest name”. Roger Howell’s rich baritone gave a commanding Rigoletto. (Principal roles are being shared in this production: for cast details see show details.)

Eddie Muliaumaseali’i’s bass voice gives us an excellent Sparafucile (and also courtier Ceprano). Muliaumaseali’i is well cast as the murderer, a thoroughly intimidating figure who brings to mind Jonah Lomu on the field. (And indeed it turns out that he plays rugby when not singing Verdi).

The costumes were generally appropriate, although Gilda could have been more fetching in her Act I appearance, to help underline her appeal to the Duke. Her duffle coat in Act II brought back unhappy memories of the fashion sense of 1960s youth. One thing we did have over modern youth is that we knew how to enjoy our opera. Monday night’s youthful crowd were boringly polite and restrained, and it was not the fault of the performance. We used to yell ourselves hoarse and clap our hands red to show our enthusiasm, to the delight of the performers. We did have the likes of Donald Smith to pay court to, and OzOpera isn’t quite in that league. But it deserves being seen and enjoyed by the new century’s youth.

www.STAGEDIARY.com: Queensland’s Online Stage Magazine

— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Sun 22nd July 2001)