Review: Verdi’s Rigoletto is back, again (Sydney Opera House until 24th August)

Tackling Verdi’s Rigoletto in the #metoo era could have been a real opportunity for Opera Australia. A story featuring a leader who believes women merely objects for his desire and a disadvantaged subject who cheers on this behaviour until it is directed towards his own daughter – just think of the possible political parallels to be drawn from this! But sadly, this is an opportunity lost, given up for the safety of the all too familiar. The latest revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s 1991 production has a couple of firsts for its performers but not much in the way of the new for audiences. It is good but not ground-breaking.

The Rigoletto of the title is a court jester, in the service of the Duke of Mantua. Bitter and twisted in form and function, Rigoletto inflicts venom on the Duke’s court who watch helplessly as the Duke manhandles their wives and daughters. While revelling in other mens’ torment, Rigoletto himself seeks to avoid the same fate by hiding his own daughter from the world.

But try as he might, he cannot protect his innocent Gilda from the clutches of the libidinous Duke, who sneaks into Rigoletto’s home and persuades Gilda he is deeply in love with her. Imagine Rigoletto’s torment, then, when he discovers he has inadvertently helped the maligned courtiers to kidnap Gilda (thinking she is, in fact, Rigoletto’s mistress) and delivered her straight into the arms of the Duke.

Rigoletto seeks to rescue his daughter and exact his revenge, enlisting the help of an assassin. Spoiler alert – this does not result in the desired happy ending for our clown.

When it was originally scheduled, this staging was to have featured three performances by Italian baritone, Leo Nucci, dubbed the ‘most praised Rigoletto ever’*. Sadly, an announcement was made in February this year that Nucci was no longer available, which apparently also led to Opera Australia’s decision to revive the Elijah Moshinsky version of the opera (which was first staged in 1991).

In this production, which was also revived in 2010, we see the action play out in cinematic-style, drawing its cues from film director Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. So much has already been written about this set and the related production elements that it seems a bit boring to go over it all again. And, to be honest, that’s kind of how this production feels on stage in 2018. A passage of nearly 30 years does tend to date production technology and you can’t help but feel you’ve since seen similar takes on the revolving dollhouse set that have worked more effectively (OA’s 2016 version of My Fair Lady, for example). A little dusty, a little flat, a little disappointing. Even the famous Fiat of the third act fails to elicit much enthusiasm.

With that said, the music is what we’re really here for and thankfully there is nothing tired about its interpretation. Luxurious, enveloping and evocative, Verdi’s Rigoletto is what my friend describes as the way listening to opera should feel: like sliding into a warm bubble bath on a cold, winter’s night. The Opera Australia Orchestra, led by Renato Palumbo, superbly navigate the nuanced dynamics, both in terms of volume and intensity. In particular, the flute during the opening of Caro nome (Sweet Name) is dainty and playful, setting the scene for the way this aria should be handled. Similarly, the entire third act is accompanied with a delicious, ominous broil, as Palumbo drives the orchestra to passionately perform the role of both weather and emotion.

The standout vocalist in this production is certainly Gianluca Terranova (the Duke). Clean, bright and resonant, you find yourself waiting with baited breath for Terranova’s tenor to take on the uber-famous La donna è mobile (Woman is Fickle). And he doesn’t disappoint. The only criticism, if it is even fair, is that Terranova doesn’t quite physically inhabit the part. His Duke is not pushed to the extreme of charm or sleeze (depending on your take on the character), residing somewhere in the middle – all arms yes, but not enough swagger.

Dalibor Jenis adds the role of Rigoletto to his repertoire with this production. His baritone is secure and confident but, like his acting, seems to lack a little conviction. On opening night it sounded a little as though he was trying to carefully craft every note, rather than revel in the joy or despair the score so beautifully evokes. His characterisation is difficult to discern and during his initial interaction with Sparafucile he seems to barely acknowledge his fellow performer.

Jenis unfortunately is not helped by visiting soprano, Irina Lungu, who never seems to settle into her role as Gilda. She seems to set herself at a distance from her fellow performers and while capable of hitting Verdi’s ridiculously high notes doesn’t seem to do so with the utmost confidence. Perhaps it was the second-story stage with no railings that sent the nerves into overdrive, but her rendition of Caro nome was disappointingly constrained. However, by the end of the production Lungu seems more confident and matches power with the two gentlemen (just).

Commendation should be given to Taras Berezhansky, a new-comer to the Opera Australia stage who holds his own with Denis and Terranova. Reprising her role as Maddalena, Sian Pendry gets lost behind the other leads.

The remaining ensemble and Opera Australia Chorus, directed by chorus master Anthony Hunt, are a great source of frivolity in this dark and seedy world. From the almost obscene use of the twist in Questa o quella (This Woman or That) to the cheesy re-enactment of their ‘crime’ in Scorrendo uniti (We Went Together at Nightfall) the ensemble’s over-the-top interpretation of the choreography and action are a welcome reprieve from the inwardly directed performances of the leads.

All up, this is a sound revival of a crowd favourite, but Opera Australia’s current Rigoletto won’t shatter any records. The loyal audience member will find little that is new here but will hopefully still appreciate the opportunity to revisit the assured tenor of Terranova.

THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Verdi’s Rigoletto is playing at the Sydney Opera House until 24th August. For tickets go here.

The reviewer attended opening night, Friday 6th July.

Photo credit: Prudence Upton