By Verdi; presented by NBR New Zealand Opera
Directed by Lindy Hume; Conducted by Wyn Davies
St James Theatre, Wellington | May 19-26
The New Zealand Opera pulls no punches in this sublime version of Verdi’s Rigoletto. As a young person, it is easy to feel alienated or self-conscious at opera; I feel like I’m pulling the average age down by about 20 years. Nevertheless, my flatmate had ironed my only buttoned shirt with a hair-straighter and we braved the cold stares of people who can wear a bowtie comfortably. We needn’t have worried; Rigoletto is beautiful, thrilling and breathtaking.
The curtain partly opens to reveal a spine tingling tableau: Rigoletto (Warwick Fyfe) sits in silence on a beautiful leather couch. Nothing else is visible except six television screens hanging behind him broadcasting an overcast day with ominous crows circling. Then, in a flourish of overture, the marbled court descends around him. Crowds appear magically and the screens explode into a montage depicting the election and celebration of the Duke of Mantua (Rafael Rojas), who enters to great applause.
We discover the Duke is a ladies’ man of Silvio Berlusconi proportions. Indeed, he openly embraces Countess Ceprano (Emma Fraser) in court, a fact that doesn’t impress Count Ceprano (James Clayton). It is, however, the mocking taunts of the Duke’s fool, Rigoletto, that incites Count Ceprano’s revenge. Rigoletto’s disdain for his fellow courtiers is clear as he further insults Monterone (Rodney Macann), the father of another of the Duke’s lovers. The beautiful mise en scène sees Rigoletto and the Duke on one side of the stage and the conspiring courtiers on the other. Honour, it seems, is not something to be trifled with in Italy, as Monterone places a curse on Rigoletto. On his way home, Rigoletto meets a hired killer, Sparafucile (Ashraf Sewailam) in a bus stop who spurs questions about his own job as a fool. Complete with Kenwood stovetop and formica table, Rigoletto’s home is shared by Gilda (Emma Pearson), the daughter he keeps secret from the world. It is this daughter who has the love of the Count.
And so we’re off. The Duke pretends to be a poor student (cue chuckles from the poor students in the audience), Count Ceprano plots his revenge, Sparafuclie and his gin and tonic-swilling sister, Maddalena (Kristen Darragh), work at their macabre business, and Monterone’s curse circles above Rigoletto. Yes, the production is called Rigoletto, but director Lindy Hume has crafted such a detailed world that the “most unexpected twist” promised by the publicity material is the beauty and density of the world rather than the twists and turns of the plot.
As a character study, Rigoletto is intriguing. The complexities of having to play the fool are touched on, but Rigoletto remains an enigmatic figure. It is Gilda who gives the piece its heart. Her aria expressing the joys of first love is beautiful.
Typical diatribe associated with reviving opera focuses on “timelessness.” Rigoletto is different; it is a story for the here and now. By accentuating modern parallels and clearly highlighting that grandeur is a façade, the pomposity that young people claim make opera appear inaccessible to us is nowhere to be found. However, to merely call Rigoletto accessible would be an understatement. Those traditional assumptions we make about opera—stuffy costumes, traditional sets, plot twists worthy of the better Shortland Street episodes—are totally subverted in this strikingly modern production. All is polished marble. Set pieces revolve and transform. The curtain rises on the second half to reveal the aftermath of the Count’s bunga bunga party. Our hired killer, Sparafucile, shows off photos of his beautiful sister on his Smartphone. Gilda’s incredible aria is performed in pajamas.
Rigoletto does everything opera should be doing: uncompromisingly stunning music complemented by spine-tingling singing, a chorus of courtiers who give talented and detailed performances, and a production that speaks to the very core of life today.
The New Zealand Opera offer a limited number of $25 Under-25 Rush tickets for each opera. Rush tickets are only available at the venue Box Office from 10am on the day of the performance. See nzopera.com for more information.