The clown/jester Rigoletto is not well-liked, but is good at his job – essentially, to make fun of the vulnerable for the amusement of his boss, the Duke of Mantua, and the duke’s hangers-on.
The Duke is a ruthless and incorrigible womaniser, yet when Count Monterone, the father of one of his young victims, rails against him, it is the mocking Rigoletto who seems the more deeply affected by the old man’s curse.
Tired of being the butt of Rigoletto’s humour, some of the Duke’s entourage decide to play a trick on him. Rumour has it that the jester is hiding a lover. They will abduct her and present her for the Duke’s pleasure.
It transpires that the young woman being jealously protected by Rigoletto is not his lover, but his precious daughter, Gilda. When the innocent and naive Gilda is ravished and cast aside, Rigoletto swears to have his revenge. To this end, he hires the services of Sparafucile, an experienced assassin. All the while, Monterone’s curse is hanging over him…
It’s a vivid yet peculiar production that designer Rae Smith and director Femi Elufowoju jr put before us. The nobles are a colony of artists, with the Duke as their leading light. Each scene is presented as a tableau, often framed as though the stage is a gigantic painting. It’s striking (and certainly makes for a strong set of promotional images). Whilst the Duke’s European venue speaks to French, Italian and Dutch masters, Rigoletto’s home explicitly draws on the African art of Athi-Patra Ruga’s “The Night of the Long Knives.” It is visually impressive and demarcates the two worlds to instant effect. It feels just a little too satisfied with its own cleverness, though.
In contrast, the final scenes are powerfully staged by the riverside: a shabby cafe, a burnt out car, the pop-up tents of the homeless, leered over by a shifting, beautiful yet unsettling skyscape. The emotional might have been wrung, if only our director had resisted that mystifying contemporary fetish to sprinkle tragedy with sugared drops of farce. Here, as the artists work to increase tension and foreboding, we quite literally have an extra running round in pursuit of his trousers.
Life and even death are, of course, often tainted by the absurd. Deftly handled, such aspects can render the grim all the more grotesque. Here, the result is to undercut the emotion. No doubt some find that fascinating. Popular culture fans will nod knowingly at the sight of conspirators dressed in the red jumpsuits of Casa di Papel’s “Money Heist” series.
The singing is very fine. Eric Greene is an imposing Rigoletto – the thoughtful decision to make race rather than disability the source of the prejudice he faces, works well. As Gilda, Jasmine Habersham wins over the audience and, with more helpful production choices might have brought tears to our eyes.
Roman Arndt provides an energetically insatiable Duke, though he is out-villained by Callum Thorpe’s sonorous Sparafucile (not one to meet down a dark alley – and I mean that as a compliment). As Maddalena, the assassin’s exploited sister, Alyona Abramova is a genuine scene-stealer. Channelling Solomon Burke for his take on Count Monterone, Byron Jackson sets a high bar (just as well, given Sir Willard White will fill the role on other nights).
It’s fair to say that Opera North has given us a memorable Rigoletto; sometimes for the right reasons.