Verdi’s Rigoletto features one of opera’s most famous pieces of music, ‘La Donna e mobile‘, which is recognisable the world over, even if you’ve never seen an opera before. Other than that, I knew relatively little about Rigoletto, as I have never watched it before, and I make a rule of never reading the programme beforehand, in order to avoid spoilers.
I ended up being utterly swept away for an evening by Giuseppe Verdi’s beautiful music and his libretto of Shakespearean proportions; a story that is so achingly tragic and moving, it brought me right back to how I felt experiencing my first opera, Tosca. This flawless performance of Rigoletto shows exactly what converted me to opera in the first place.
The opera begins with a party at the palace of influential womaniser, the Duke of Mantua (Roman Arndt). It is interrupted by Monterone (Sir Willard White), whose daughter has been molested by the Duke. Court jester, Rigoletto (Eric Greene), mocks the man for his powerlessness and failure to protect his daughter, resulting in Rigoletto and the Duke being cursed by Monterone.
In a dark twist of irony, Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda (Jasmine Habersham) is kidnapped and molested by the Duke. Against his daughter’s wishes, because she has fallen in love with the Duke, Rigoletto vows vengeance on him, a pledge that backfires with tragic consequences.
Under the direction of Femi Elufowoju Jr, Rigoletto is thankfully no longer the hunchback depicted in the original opera. Instead, the character’s ‘otherness’ and place as an outcast derives from his race, and his status as a Black jester in a court of white nobility.
The director’s Nigerian influences on this production’s setting also adds immense gravity and severity to the concept of being cursed, something that drives the drama of the whole opera, and mustn’t be laughed at.
It is wonderful to see yet another diverse cast from Opera North. Alongside Carmen, which also played at The Lowry this week, it is refreshing to see another titular protagonist played by a person of colour. Although some critics may deem this as ‘woke’ casting, Eric Greene proves that this isn’t the case with his absolutely flawless performance as Rigoletto.
An American baritone, Greene genuinely has one of the most magnificent voices I have heard on stage. With rich bass notes, his voice is deep and luxuriant. I could honestly listen to him sing all day. His arias are gorgeous, easily resonating over the full orchestra, but Greene is also fantastic in the opera’s dramatic aspects too.
There is no denying that Rigoletto is fundamentally flawed, and Eric Greene perfectly portrays the multifaceted aspects of his character, perfectly portraying the angry, violent man, raging at the man who has dishonoured his daughter. Greene also exquisitely renders his softer, more caring side too.
Rigoletto’s relationship with his daughter, Gilda, risks bordering on the possessive, as he forbids her from leaving the house, other than to go to church. However, Greene’s tenderness towards Jasmine Habersham in their beautiful duets together make Rigoletto less possessive. Instead, as he heart-wrenchingly sings lamentations about his late wife, it is obvious that he is fiercely protective of Gilda, as any single father would be.
Jasmine Habersham has an astonishing vocal range and delivers a sublime performance as Gilda. Instantly winning the audience over, her aria ‘Caro nome‘ is sung beautifully and Habersham perfectly captures her character’s innocence and the intoxicating rush of first love she feels towards the Duke, who is disguised as a student at the time.
Witnessing her character’s transformation after the interval is a shock. Having been kidnapped and sexually assaulted by the Duke, Habersham renders Gilda’s trauma to tragic effect. Her youthful exuberance is replaced by devastation and upset. Her mannerisms are meek and muted. It’s a performance that makes Gilda’s story as equally tragic as Rigoletto’s.
I must admit to being initially disappointed at Rae Smith‘s set design of a plain black box, framed in neon strip-lighting. Opera North have set the bar so high with their spectacular productions, naturally, I automatically expected a visually impressive set from them. However, my doubts were silenced after a few minutes, when a beautiful, immense portrait, unfolds from the flies, covering the rear of the stage, framed in gold.
In the second act, the design of Rigoletto and Gilda’s residence is even more spectacular, with a life-size statue of a zebra, as the stage is majestically framed with a golden flower garland. It’s certainly a treat for the eyes, with balloons everywhere, and as if the zebra isn’t strange enough, there’s even a toucan sat on a swing!
It is in the stage design of the final act where the opera’s stark contrast between nobility and the poor is thrust to the forefront. Rather than the action taking place in the princely palace from act one, several tents are placed on a promenade alongside a burnt-out car, which has had its tyres pillaged. Kudos to the stage team for erecting tents and creating this dilapidated campsite for the homeless during the short 4 minute break between acts.
This desperate scene of devastation is the perfect setting for the opera’s sensational climax, and is matched by Howard Hudson‘s dramatic lighting and Verdi’s suspenseful music. The tension slowly builds as a thunderous storm slowly rolls in; a metaphor indicating the dark, tragic events to come, and a curse fulfilled.