Opera Australia launched their 2023 season of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto last night at the Sydney Opera House Joan Sutherland Theatre to a good size crowd. Verdi set the opera based around Victor Hugo’s highly controversial play “Le roi s’amuse” or “The King amuses himself”. Written in 1832, Hugo’s play itself was based around a real life court jester of the French Kings nicknamed Triboulet.
Triboulet made the most of his physically deformed body clowning around and adding an extremely naughty wit and cheek to keep the King laughing, pushing the limits of acceptability by insulting the nobility and courtiers alike.
When the day finally came that he’d pushed things too far and totally insulted King Francis I himself, Triboulet was told that, since he had provided such good service over many years, he could choose how he would die. Triboulet, witty as ever, requested that he die of old age. The King apparently laughed and banished him from France.
Francis I was well known as a womaniser. Victor Hugo included this characteristic as a crucial part of the play’s storyline where the King’s antics ruin many lives. After the premiere, the character’s close resemblance to the real King Francis I caused the play to be immediately banned. Post Revolution, France had a King again at that time so, now was not the moment to be insulting the King’s ancestors. Hugo took the decision to court to plead for the right to Freedom of Speech. He lost unfortunately and the play was banned for 50 years.
When Verdi decided to retell this dangerous story, renaming the title role as Rigoletto, he had to negotiate with the censors of both France and Austria on every little detail of the story. As part of the compromise, he replaced the role of the King with the fictional Duke of Mantua (Lombardy, Italy) where the Dukedom had long become extinct and there was no one left to insult. The immense amount of talk amongst media and the public of this taboo story becoming another great Verdi masterpiece meant they were guaranteed a full house on opening night. It was a huge success and within just a few years was playing in opera houses all over the world. Meanwhile, in France, the real King was deposed once and for all, the French Republic founded and the opera was happily playing in Paris whilst Hugo’s play continued to languish.
This production of Rigoletto was originally conceived by Australian raised director Elijah Moshinsky around 1991. Set in the 1950s the set is a wonderful doll house design with interiors and exteriors revolving around a centre point. The lush interiors of the Duke’s palace in hues of red, gold and mahogany with nobility family portraits from floor to ceiling make a stark contrast to the sparse, blue tinted street scene and homely, country style decor of Rigoletto’s house.
Sydney Opera House audiences frequently talk about the Fiat Bambino that drives on stage in Act IV as the signature way to recognise which version of Rigoletto we are watching. It’s headlights blind one side of the stalls and raise a giggle in everyone else.
The production has changed very little from the original aside from a few small surprising details such as Rigoletto making the satanist salute before he sings his first note and the courtiers doning sun worshipping masks when they head off on their mission. The simplicity of the costumes sometimes makes it difficult for newbies to pick out the characters in their tuxedos, particularly as the cast are mostly male with only a small handful of women.
In his debut season with Opera Australia, in the title role, is Italian baritone Ernesto Petti. His voice was strong and clear for most of the performance but seemed to get a little husky towards the end. The role is extremely challenging, not just in vocal technique but also its diverse range of emotions and necessity to portray a consistent physical ailment. Rigoletto is described as a hunchback which rarely means a simple a lump on the shoulder. The deformity would raise one side, thereby making lop-sided shoulders, shortening the neck, twisting the spine and knocking the hips out of alignment. To express this, one needs to surely be limping, hunched over, an S bend sideways or at least leaning to the side. Petti is new to the role so this crucial part of the act may need more development – or perhaps a rubber band around one knee to remind him to stay off that leg. Standing tall and strong or walking occasionally without the walking stick makes the role less believable. It’s no doubt quite a task, singing full volume whilst slumped forward. I’m sure this will improve now opening night is out of the way and he can focus on refining the character. The emotional side of Petti’s interpretation was superb. He has a wonderful vehicle in “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” (“Accursed race of courtiers”) where the character swings between his role as jester and trying different strategies to get information out of the unhelpful courtiers as to the whereabouts of his beloved daughter. Cool sarcasm, feigned politeness, fierce violence, pleading on his knees. Petti captured this beautifully along with his most vulnerable, intimate moments remembering that he has been cursed and wondering what will come of it.
His daughter is played by an Australian. Brava! Stacey Alleaume has become a mainstay since she started performing principal roles just before the Covid event. In those early days there was plenty of encouragement for a new soloist thrust into the spotlight hoping she would get through ok. But here we are, 5 years on, Alleaume has developed into a magnificent soprano of which we can be very proud. Her voice has matured, her technique grown exponentially and her dramatic acting is so much more confident now. All that thrown-in-the-deep-end experience has paid off. We can safely say she is fully fledged! As Gilda, she offered the cutest teenager, still a little childish, a bit naughty, a bit of sarcastic attitude, easily love struck. It’s a fantastic role, similar to the all familiar Shakespeare’s Juliet where the character begins the performance as a child and finishes as grown up as she will ever be, filled with deep emotions and strong values for which she is prepared to give her life. Alleaume portrayed this very naturally and easily sailing through the best known coloratura aria of the opera, “Caro nome”. This alone was worth the ticket price.
Opposite her as the lascivious Duke was Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan. There were moments of brilliance in his performance with wonderful articulation and strength. The performance did appear to require some effort though and when a note was missed the effort increased, putting pressure on the pitch and vibrato. The aria made famous to the modern world by Pavarotti “La donna è mobile” (A woman is fickle) became a struggle and may have been better to finish an octave lower rather than to force the voice. The audience were gracious in forgiving him as the rest of the performance had gone well.
The assassin Sparafucile was played by Italian Roberto Scandiuzzi, an extraordinary bass who’s power, technique and acting skills earned him loud cheers at the curtain call. He played his character in a cool and natural way as if it was no big deal to be an assassin. Hey, you’re a jester, I’m an assassin, nice to meet you. It was a refreshing interpretation where he didn’t play an overtly nasty baddie. He’s performed for Opera Australia a few times and is booked for Aida as soon as Rigoletto is complete. Aida costuming tends to limit the acting possibilities however, so catch him in Rigoletto if you can.
Australian singers filled out the smaller roles including
- David Parkin really stretching himself and doing a superb job as a rather young looking Monterone.
- Sian Sharp enjoying the fun in two contrasting roles of the elderly maid Giovanna and the bold, sexy Maddelena.
- Luke Gabbedy offering excellent vocal and dramatic skills as the go-between who finds his conscience, Marullo.
- Ruth Strutt as the wayward Countess Ceprano
- Anthony Mackey as her husband the Count constantly insulted by both Rigoletto and the Duke. The poor Count really didn’t have a hope in hell.
The male chorus are well familiar with this production now and you can visibly see this in their relaxed attitude, developed individual characters and consistently high quality singing. They provided the perfect background for the drama happening downstage and took glee in their re-telling the story of the abduction.
A regular guest artist of Opera Australia is Conductor Renato Palumbo who lead the orchestra. There were quite a few sudden changes of tempi which didn’t seem to aid the flow of the scenes but he always corrected again before the audience lost their way. He was given keen applause at the close.
All in all, a very enjoyable revival of a well familiar production. Excellent performance and well worth a visit. Verdi has written some breathtakingly beautiful moments in this opera. It’s a wonderful introduction for anyone who is new to classical music with a story that is easy to follow, sex and violence, romance and intrigue.
The season runs until 26 June 2023.
Reserve your seat here: https://opera.org.au/productions/rigoletto-sydney/
Read Victor Hugo’s original play Le Roi s’Amuse https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/29549
The Magnificent “Bella Figlia dell’amore” Quartet from the final act featuring Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, Leo Nucci and Isola Jones. Have you ever heard a crowd go so wild?
The season is dedicated to Opera Australia donor Phil Meddings.
Conductor: Renato Palumbo
Rigoletto: Ernesto Petti
Gilda: Stacey Alleaume
Duke of Mantua: Atalia Ayan
Sparafucile: Roberto Scandiuzzi
Monterone: David Parkin
Maddalena / Giovanna: Sian Sharp