Opera Queensland’s new production, conducted by Johannes Fritzsch, is a feast for the ears.
Verdi broke new ground with the opera Rigoletto when it was first performed at La Fenice in Venice in 1851. Verdi and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, based the opera on Victor Hugo’s scandalous story about a very badly behaved French king, and they cleverly evaded the censor’s wrath by re-situating and re-naming the characters.
Musically, the opera was revolutionary. Rather than alternating between sections of recitative and solo arias, with show-stopping finale set pieces to each of the acts, Verdi created a more seamless effect, partly by including more duets but also by making the recits, or dialogue sections much more melodic, hence creating a more elegant sense of narrative flow throughout the opera.
The music is lusciously beautiful, seductive and heart-stopping, and Opera Queensland’s new production, conducted by Johannes Fritzsch, is a feast for the ears. The orchestra is in top form, and the principals are among the best you could wish for. In the title role, Michael Lewis is tortured in spirit but richly clear vocally, while local boy Rosario La Spina is a charming, honey-voiced rogue as the lascivious Duke of Mantua. Elena Xanthoudakis’s Gilda is a delight from start to finish, with a sweetness and purity of tone that matches her strength of character. Jud Arthur imbues the role of the assassin, Sparafucile, with a satisfying complexity.
Rigoletto’s tragedy is that he neglects his responsibility, as the Duke’s jester, to speak truth to power and instead turns his wit to invective against the Duke’s entourage. When they get their revenge by kidnapping his daughter and delivering her up to the Duke’s lustful demands, his despair knows no bounds.
There is much to admire about Richard Roberts’s design and Lindy Hume’s direction. This Duke of Mantua is a modern media mogul, his apartment resplendent against a backdrop of multiple screens and a large window through which the impending doom is signified by a giant raven gliding by. Lots of reflective surfaces provide mirrored, fractured images of the characters and their actions and multiple point of focus to catch the eye. The problem is that these quickly become more of a distraction than an enhancement once the conceptual message – that this is Berlusconi’s Italy – has been transmitted.
The contrast between low lighting and bright flashing lights likewise make it difficult to distinguish who is doing what to whom. This may well look quite stunning to those sitting in the first few rows of the Lyric Theatre, but since the shape of this venue resembles a reverse telescope it can be a challenge to anyone sitting further back.
Nevertheless, it is Verdi’s music that is the star of this show, and Brisbane audiences can consider themselves privileged to be gifted the five star performances on offer.
Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 stars
Director: Lindy Hume
Designer: Richard Roberts
Cast: Michael Lewis, Rosario La Spina, Elena Xanthoudakis, Jud Arthur
Lyric Theatre, QPAC, South Bank
15 – 29 March