Giuseppe Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave
Opera North
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring

Production photo

There was never any doubt that this work, enshrined though it now is as an untouchable masterpiece in the mainstream of classical opera, was always going to be a sordid shocker. When, in 1850, Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave set about devising a plot, they went to a play that was already notorious – Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse. This apparently unedifying tale of court jester Triboulet, helpless to save his daughter Blanche from seduction by King Francois I followed by a violent and unmerited death, was greeted by boos and hisses on its opening performance in 1832. It was then promptly banned in the name of public morality (and perhaps because the background of the current French monarch, Louis-Philippe, didn’t bear too much scrutiny in the face of some of Hugo’s remarks about courtly morals). Verdi’s opera revamped the play, retaining a Renaissance setting but changing names, ranks and nationality. The King is now Duke of Mantua, the jester is Rigoletto and the rest is history.

Well, not quite. Verdi and Piave both located and strengthened the moral centre of the drama. It resolutely refuses, in either version, to offer us a reassuring structure in which, though the innocent suffer, the wicked are also brought down. This is no Don Giovanni – the Duke doesn’t even see the error of his ways, or pause for a moment to consider what human wreckage he leaves in his trail. Rigoletto presents instead a world where we are at the mercy of unthinking power and trapped in the structures that support it. Corruption isn’t the exception here, it’s the inevitable norm. The moral dimension is represented by fathers who cannot save their daughters, and the moral crisis comes when Rigoletto, a man whose very physical stature has made him a pawn in the Duke’s decadent manoeuvres, fails to acknowledge an echo of his own, challenged decency. When Monterone, maddened by the destruction of his daughter’s innocence, demands recognition of the Duke’s responsibility, Rigoletto forgets his own moral centre, his beloved daughter Gilda, and taunts Montereone until the latter inflicts a curse that will bring cruel fate (or at least dramatic irony) crashing down on the heads of jester and daughter alike.

And how on earth do you convey this to a modern audience? Of course, most opera fans can muster sufficient historical background to place the social implications as well as the story itself into a suitable framework of Renaissance (or perhaps 19th century) meaning, when a good name lost was a character utterly destroyed, unless power made your reputation untouchable. To get a direct buzz of contact with the emotional intensity, however, you often have to go with the music (which is right and proper) pretty much at the expense of the plot and characters (which isn’t). Opera North’s 2006 production, directed by Charles Edwards, clearly sets out to bridge the gap between that almost painful concentration of helpless feeling in Verdi’s music and what may read as an overblown piece of historical melodrama. That he modernises the setting (well, an early 1960s version of Italy) is enough to ruffle some feathers, but that he strips off all the glamour and reduces it to a sad urban account of degradation and loss has caused serious alienation among the die-hards. And let me come out of my operatic closet right now and say that I would love to see a full Renaissance-set Rigoletto, with big frocks, golden thrones and bells on the jester’s cap. I’d queue for tickets, and part of me regrets that no-one seems to do it any more. That said, I doubt it would translate Verdi’s meaning half so well to the modern stage as this trailer-trash version of the action does.

The Duke (well, Il Duca – here it’s a nickname more than a rank) surrounds himself not with beautiful women (they mostly happen off-stage) but with men. That’s what is so creepily right about the production - ordinary-looking men corrupted by an alliance that makes them all powerful by proxy. Il Duca seduces a woman, and they’ve all seduced her. The room where they cluster is lined with pin-up photos – if one of them has a decent impulse towards a woman, in this atmosphere he would have to stifle it. So when the wry, shabby janitor figure of Rigoletto (magnificently sung by Jonathan Summers) mocks at Monterone and the addled, damaged figure of his party-girl daughter, he’s acting in self-preservation, which makes his subsequent destruction so devastating. Summers shows us a man desperately (too desperately) trying to preserve a tiny world where something pure can be preserved. And of course, it isn’t an enclave of domestic peace – it’s a shabby caravan where a dowdy Gilda almost stifles in the arid atmosphere. Linda Richardson makes exquisite sense of Gilda’s fall into misplaced love and sacrifice – what else has she known?

The dramatic mechanics of the production have been tightened up since its initial appearance in Newcastle, and the role of the assassin Sparafucile (Clive Bayley) now feels much more integrated into the arc of action and motivations. Everyone was in fine vocal form for Wednesday’s performance, but it’s the production itself which will, I suspect, remain the most memorable part of the evening. It wasn’t remotely decorative or visually attractive, but by removing the filters it left Verdi’s music, and the painful, despairing essence of Hugo’s original plot, to hit you like a fist.

Reviewer: Gail-Nina Anderson