There was the expected buzz of an opening night, heightened by the sounds of the orchestra tuning up and playing snatches of well-known Verdi tunes. Publicity had made it clear that this was to be a traditional production – no whispers of political corruption with the male chorus in slick suits or SS uniform, for instance.
The opera lends itself well to such “modernising”, with Opera Queensland the latest to draw praise for Lindy Hume’s Silvio Berlusconi-inspired Rigoletto. But it should not be forgotten that the composer himself had to set the story in a decadent Renaissance Italy, distancing it from contemporary references to avoid censorship by his own government.
So corruption is nothing new. It is rife in the world that director Rodger Hodgman (with designer Richard Roberts’ sets and Tracy Grant Lord’s costumes) creates in this traditional Opera Australia production. The Duke of Mantua’s apparently insatiable lust – and determination to exercise his power to this end – leaves no one safe at his court: the wife of one, the daughter of another, including Gilda, daughter of his deformed court jester, Rigoletto.
The courtiers are corrupt in their sycophantic involvement in the Duke’s intrigues, with Rigoletto’s complicit laughter the deep irony that underlies this tragic tale. It is also the reason why he is publicly cursed and feels himself to be doomed.
Central to this interpretation of the opera is the notion of purity and innocence – and the only possible vehicle for its expression is Gilda. The choice of Irina Dubrovskaya to perform the role was inspired. The young Siberian-born soprano both looks and sounds the part: innocent without being coy, her apparent purity extending to her vocal line, heard to advantage in Caro nome (standing up in comparison to the many recorded versions available).
Interestingly for an opera that has more than one such famous aria (La donna e mobile being another) Verdi is said to have written: “I conceived Rigoletto almost without arias, without finales but only an unending string of duets.” Although that concept is not entirely realised, the opera has a wealth of such partnerings. As the amorous “student” courting Gilda (the dastardly Duke in disguise) Gianluca Terranova is mellow almost to the point of sounding like a Neopolitan tenor, in contrast to his arrogant and stentorian rendition of La donna e mobile, the piece that reveals his true character. But it must be said that Terranova has the looks and the voice that make him plausible as the suitor Gilda innocently welcomes.
Rigoletto, of course, inspires a whole range of emotions – although he appears to be a character only a daughter could love. Warwick Fyfe, fresh from his triumphs as Alberich in the Melbourne Ring last year, brought drama, complexity and a great voice to the title role in Verdi’s opera. As Rigoletto, he lives up to accolades from Ring fellow-soloist Deborah Humble who wrote for Classic Melbourne: “For those who were lucky enough to see Warwick’s momentous performances in the Melbourne Ring Cycle I doubt there would be many among them left questioning his ability as a singer or an actor.”
Solid support for the principals was given by the chorus and other soloists. Daniel Sumegi was a suitably scary, deep-voiced Sparafucile – impressively alternating this role this season with that of the solid Prince Gremin, Tatayana’s husband in Eugene Onegin. Conductor Palumbo Renato led Orchestra Victoria’s sensitivity to the ever-changing action on stage in a way that was invaluable for the singers.
So everything was in place to make this Rigoletto the triumph that it was. For me, the test is always the performance of the quartet of incomparable beauty in Act lll when Gilda, Rigoletto and the Duke are joined by Sparafucile’s sister, Maddalena (Sian Pendry). All sang beautifully, and in character, at this crucial moment in the drama – with Gilda’s voice finally soaring above the others. The quartet is Bella figlia dell’amore (“Beautiful daughter of love”) – which is really what this opera, and this faithful production, is all about.
Suzanne Yanko attended the opening night of Rigoletto at the State Theatre, on April 12.
Picture: Warwick Fyfe as Rigoletto. Copyright Jeff Busby