Verdi and Piave
The Lowry, Salford (touring to Newcastle, Hull and elsewhere)
March 9,12, 2022; 2hrs 40mins. The season also features Carmen (March 10, Alcina, Mar 11)
If you don’t feel rather uncomfortable watching Verdi’s Rigoletto, there’s probably something wrong with you.
It shows a ruthless despot indulging his sexual whims and having his rivals killed when he fancies, and one of his hangers-on joining in the general amorality of the ruling gang… until his own daughter becomes a victim. She’s too besotted by young love to realise how appallingly she is being treated, and her father only wants vendetta: a hired assassin tricks him and the daughter who pays with her life.
Based on Victor Hugo’s Le Roi S’Amuse (with some aspects removed to satisfy the censors of the time), the plot attracted Verdi for its drama and tragedy. In his version, it’s all about the curse delivered by a man who has suffered and is soon to die.
The original storyline also has Rigoletto (the father) as a hunchback jester in a mythical dukedom’s court. In this new production by British-Nigerian director Femi Elufowoju Jr for Opera North, that’s gone.
Not before time, you might say: some performances make him a sort of cross between Richard III and The Yeomen of the Guard’s Jack Point. But what should define him instead? Elufowoju says he wants to show Rigoletto’s “otherness”, with the experience of a British born and bred African behind it.
Since the casting has him sung by Eric Greene, Gilda (the daughter) by Jasmine Habersham, and Count Monterone (the utterer of the curse) by Sir Willard White (or Byron Jackson, on the night I saw), the common factor in all three of those who suffer most is that they’re black performers. The remainder of the cast include both black and white, but the colour issue is clear enough.
I tried to envisage the production being done without black singers in those three key roles, and it’s hard to see how it could work without them sharing some physical characteristic not found among the other major parts.
The costumes (set and costume design by Rae Smith) seem to anchor the otherness more firmly in African-ness: Monterone is seen in full traditional garb, and by the end Rigoletto has donned something similar, too, instead of the shiny tuxedo he affects in his opening scenes. Other than that, the costumes are highly colourful and varied – maybe they all have symbolic meaning beyond the obvious hoodies-for-bad-guys, miniskirts-for-bad-girls aspects.
The main visual element in the setting is a giant image of a Renaissance noblewoman’s baptism scene (I think), and a child’s garden of delight, with balloons and a big model of a zebra, for Rigoletto’s private quarters. Symbolism there too, I guess, if you look for it.
Having said all that, the performance, under the baton of Opera North’s (still relatively new) music director Garry Walker, was wonderful. His pacing is perfect, his flexibility with the phrasing and rhythms idiomatic and alive. When the music needs it, the director allows the singers to simply stand and deliver into the auditorium – always a good idea when they’re up against Verdi’s screaming piccolo and thundering brass – and on the whole, balance was excellent.
Eric Greene brought his richly varied vocal colours and attractive tone to the title role: he’s a very good actor, too, and his Cortigiani, vil razza dannata in Act Two was a highlight in both respects.
Jasmine Habersham, too, can act and sing: her voice can make that bell-like quality that’s so essential for the famous Act One Caro nome aria, when she first sings of her teenage infatuation (it became a little bit like a vocal exercise right at the end), but Tutte le feste al tempio (Act Two, again, as she confides in her father) was very good indeed, as was the rest of their remaining scene together. She has a strong lower register, too, ever more apparent as the opera continues.
Byron Jackson had all the power needed for Monterone and that fateful curse, thundering from centre stage almost like the undead Commendatore in Don Giovanni.
If there was a slightly weaker link in the line-up of principals, it was Roman Arndt as the Duke. He has some fine show-off arias to deliver, including the much-excerpted La donna è mobile in Act Three – a jolly tune, but in the drama an expression of utter cynicism. His voice was a little underpowered to begin with (better in Act One, scene two, where the duet with Gilda found them a well-matched pair).
There are no weak links in the remaining cast members, with Callum Thorpe’s Sparafucile suitably chilling in his growling bass tone. Alyona Abramova’s rich eastern-European tone impressive in her singing of Maddalena (his sister and assistant entrapper, in the story). And the chorus sang and performed strongly, as ever.
A good night out, with no doubt – and all preceded by something I have never witnessed in an opera house before. After an eloquent speech by Opera North’s general director, Richard Mantle on behalf of the company, the orchestra played the Ukrainian national anthem, with almost the entire audience standing in respect.
How times have changed: one Russian member of the cast must already be regretting that his biography in the programme proudly notes he has sung under the baton of the (now disgraced) conductor Valery Gergiev.
More info and tickets here