If it weren’t for Victor Hugo, there’d be no Rigoletto. His 1832 play, Le Roi S’Amuse (translation is variable, but The King Amuses Himself suffices) amounts to thinly-veiled mockery of King Louis-Philippe, disguised as Francis I. Censors of the day didn’t fall for it, and after a single performance it was banned. This spurred Hugo into a martyr for free speech. It didn’t prevent the play from being banned for a further 50 years, but it elevated him to a status he wouldn’t have otherwise held. Controversy sticks like mud, for even when Verdi came to write Rigoletto, authorities (Austrian, in Venice, at the time) insisted he supplant the action from France to Mantua. Who knows? Maybe this prevented an outbreak of hostilities.
Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. If Hugo and Verdi are to be believed (and written history tends to support their poetic licentiousness on behalf of His Royal Highness), he was a notorious womaniser who fathered numerous bastards, along with five legit offspring.
If there’s a moral to the story (originally entitled, La Maledizione, or ‘The Curse’), it’s ‘be careful what you wish for’: the curse is applied by a courtier whose daughter is accosted by the randy duke, with his jester, Rigoletto’s encouragement. Next thing we know, Rigoletto’s own daughter, Gilda, is subject to the duke’s relentless pursuit, which is of course, a horse of an entirely different colour.
As luck would have it, though, the duke’s love doesn’t go unrequited and it’s Gilda who, in true operatic fashion, gives herself as a human shield to save her lover from Rigoletto’s hired hit-men.
Opera is a blood sport. Rivalry can be healthy and bring out the best, but, by the same token, it can throw things right out. The beauty of Opera Australia’s spanking new production, directed by Roger Hodgman and conducted by Renato Palumbo, is that everyone and everything is in sublime balance. The three principals all but take the breath away.
Giorgio Caoduro takes the stage with a splendidly unwrinkled performance as Rigoletto. His vibrant timbre and meticulously-calibrated squillo in his top register make him quintessentially Verdi material.
Gianluca Terranova’s duke is endowed with an opulent tone that gives no quarter to any tenor I can bring to mind. Emma Matthews’ Gilda is, at once, fragile and formidable. Better yet, the acting is as stroing as the singing, with better than decent supporting performances, even in smaller roles, such as Gennadi Dubinsky’s booming Monterone. David Parkin outdoes himself, with one splendidly extended bass note in particular as Sparafucile, the infamous innkeeper, pimp and assassin.
The modulation exhibited between Sian Pendry’s Maddalena and the three principals in one of the penultimate scenes is splendid. Nor do I ever recall hearing a better perspective between voices and orchestra: the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Opera House really comes up trumps, realising its acoustic zenith, thanks to brilliant musicianship all-round.
Save for wall tiles that look, perhaps, a little too corporate and ill-fitting costumes, everything looks an absolute treat, topped by Matt Scott’s lighting. The opening scene is sexy to a cinematic degree, thanks to Scott’s facility for creating just the right neo-noir ambience. Richard Roberts’ revolving set is deviously clever: almost musical in its pacing and affording us the opportunity of different perspectives, as if looking through the very eyes of different characters.
This is a richly rewarding and immensely enjoyable production that does tremendous justice to Verdi’s mid-career masterpiece. Once can only but admire the maestro’s discriminating orchestration and his empathy for the capabilities and optimal exploitations of various instruments, from violins to timpani. Both the composer and critics seem to agree that this was a revolutionary opera, with precious few arias but plenty of back-to-back duets.
This is a reminder that opera can, and should be glamourous.