Opera Australia: Rigoletto

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Published: 15th May, 2019

The opening night of Verdi’s masterpiece had an eventful and unexpected start; Rigoletto was 20 minutes late getting underway as ushers tried to negotiate with a protestor with a megaphone in the front row, until eventually he was escorted from the theatre. It turned out to be George Dreyfus, continuing his 50-year campaign against Opera Australia for its failure to perform The Gilt-Edged Kid, the work Opera Australia commissioned from Dreyfus in 1969.

But this was quickly forgotten when the curtain opened to the dark and sombre Preludio where we first hear the orchestral chord signifying Monterone’s curse, a motif that repeats throughout the opera, a reminder that the opera’s original title was La Maledizione (The Curse). In this stark but brief opening scene that heralds the tragedy to come, the wonderfully sonorous baritone of Amartuvshin Enkhbat’s Rigoletto began to tell us why this celebrated Mongolian singer has won so many national and international competitions. By the end of the opera it had become clear that he is one of Opera Australia’s jewels and Enkhbat received a thunderous ovation. His voice is superbly focussed with a beautifully expressive tone and exquisite phrasing. It is among the best singing we have heard in a recent OA production, and arguably the best Rigoletto.

The opening Preludio moved from dramatic anguish and the VistaVision chiaroscuro of Rigoletto’s chamber to Cinemascope glamour as the set revolved to the Duke of Mantua’s louche court, where the Duke and his cronies taunt Rigoletto. There was very fine singing from the chorus, Liparit Avetisyan was a convincing Duke, and Christopher Hillier and Gennadi Dubinsky were in good voice as Ceprano and Monterone.

Act I Scene ii introduced Sparafucile, sung in this production by Roberto Scandiuzzi whose rich deep bass made us regret that his was such a relatively small role. The beautifully maintained long note in his final exit was especially impressive. In this scene we met Stacey Alleaume as a demure and innocent Gilda with her very 50s Doris Day hairdo. Miss Alleaume is a relative newcomer, a member of OA’s Moffatt Oxenbould Young Artist Program, with a young and fresh voice to match the part. Although I found her voice occasionally a little edgy in the lower and middle registers, as the opera progressed her top notes were sublime, floating effortlessly above the orchestra. The house and street setting were atmospheric, with lovely attention to detail – stained wallpaper, period light shades, Dominica Matthews’ Giovanna grating cheese on the risotto, etc.

After the Duke and Gilda’s declarations of love, which Liparit Avetisyan and Stacey Alleaume sang beautifully, the mood changed as the raiding party in dinner suits and glittering masks came to kidnap what they believe to be Rigoletto’s mistress. Reminiscent of the Mafioso, even the Blues Brothers, with more sinister sunglasses than you could poke an Italian stick at, they sang splendidly as they went about their foul deed. As in the previous scene, the contrast between light and dark both visually and dramatically sits well in Elijah Moshinsky’s mid-20th century setting. This is the fifth outing for his production since the first in 1991, but it still seems fresh and stands up very well. It raises the perennial question of whether revivals are still the best Opera Australia can do; you might yearn for a new production of many of the old favourites but this one, stylishly revived by Hugh Halliday, was easy to bear.

Fine singing and orchestral playing continued in Act 2, but of course everyone was waiting to see how Liparit Avetisyan would pull off La donna è mobile at the start of Act 3 after decades of hearing it from the world’s best tenors. He did not disappoint, with exemplary top notes, the whole sung with a suitably lyrical and jaunty arrogance. The quartet that followed was excellent.

As the opera approached its climax the orchestra captured well the sense of foreboding with their portrayal of thunder and lightning. Orchestra Victoria is first rate and their playing throughout the opera under the baton of Andrea Licata demonstrated excellent contrasts of dynamic and mood, reflecting the events taking place on stage, and there was a good balance between orchestra and singers.

The closing moments of the production, Rigoletto’s discovery of the dying Gilda in the sack and her subsequent death, and Rigoletto’s raging at the curse, were poignant and moving. Suspension of belief is a prerequisite for enjoying opera, and in rare moments one can forget that it is only a moment on the stage. This was one such moment with outstanding singing from Enkhbat and Alleaume and a wonderful flute accompaniment to Gilda’s death song. I even had a tear in the eye when the curtain came down. As we left the State Theatre the conversations among the departing audience (it was close to a full house) reflected our judgement that this was indeed a success for Opera Australia.

We rarely buy the lavish program, but on this occasion we did, only to discover that this is one of the last such programs Opera Australia will produce, except for special events. From June they will be providing free extended cheat sheets, but we were rather pleased to have come away with a splendid example of such a magnificently produced, fully notated and gorgeously photographed souvenir.

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Kristina Macrae reviewed Opera Australia’s performance of “Rigoletto” given at Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre on May 11, 2019.