Score by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
The Lowry, Salford
Opera North are trying, with their current series at The Lowry, to make a genre perceived by many as elitist, more accessible. Making Carmen (also playing at The Lowry this week) a single mother struggling against the patriarchy rather than a femme fatale / temptress is one thing, but updating Rigoletto is a harder challenge. After all, its most famous aria is a swaggering example of misogynistic victim-blaming.
However, the recent shenanigans of our current Prime Minister, and her husband, along with a certain member of the Royal Family have done much of the heavy lifting for the company. It is now easy for modern audiences to accept an opera set in a society with one rule for the rich and another for the poor. Tonight, the real world intrudes still further as Opera North read out a statement from the artistic community of Ukraine and pay tribute to the astonishing courage and fortitude of their fellow citizens by playing the Ukrainian National Anthem.
The Duke of Mantua (Roman Arndt) exploits his privileged position to seduce the wives and daughters of his courtiers. Rigoletto (Eric Greene), the Duke’s jester, ingratiates himself with the Duke and facilitates his infidelities mocking Count Monterone (Byron Jackson) (with whom he has more in common than the courtiers) who dares complain about the Duke ruining his daughter. Monterone curses Rigoletto which terrifies the jester who, thus far, has been able to conceal his own daughter, Gilda (Jasmine Habersham), from the Duke’s appetites. However, unknown to Rigoletto, Gilda has formed a relationship with someone she knows as an improvised student but who is actually the Duke in disguise.
Director Femi Elufowoju Jr. makes a simple update to the opera which makes a world of difference. Instead of being regarded as an outsider because of a disability (a hunchback in the original), Rigoletto is ostracised because of his race—he is a black man in a court staffed by white males. Rigoletto’s behaviour is, therefore, even worse than anticipated—instead of speaking truth unto power, as jesters are usually given licence to do, he panders to the Duke, egging him on and facilitating his excesses. As Count Monterone is also black, Rigoletto’s sneering jibes amount to a betrayal of his race and social class. Byron Jackson, by contrast, makes Monterone dignity personified, behaving as if he is Moses come down from the mountain to pronounce judgement.
The director does not hesitate to gently mock the excesses of the opera genre. As the party goes on in the court, a ‘Just Eat’ cyclist delivers pizza to the security guards. While the show-stopping aria "La donna è mobile" is performed, a mugging takes place in the background leaving the victim chasing after the thief who has pinched his pants.
Eric Greene plays Rigoletto as Buckingham to the Duke’s Richard III, close to becoming the power behind the throne. He becomes a tragic figure as his own shortcomings bring upon himself a fate he mockingly wished on others. Strangely, Roman Arndt finds some humanity in the Duke actually seeming concerned when Gilda is reported as kidnapped, although he soon reverts to type when her whereabouts become known.
This is a modern-day production and Rae Smith’s set is deceptive. A simple black box design is enhanced by projections of opulent tapestries to create the Duke’s court. The atmosphere is, however, vulgar rather than classy. Courtiers scramble for banknotes that float down from the ceiling and the centrepiece of Rigoletto’s apartment is a life-size model of a zebra. The sense of an elite sneering at the less fortunate is apparent at the climax, taking place outside the court in a shantytown of homeless people living in tents and a burnt-out car in which Count Monterone was murdered.
Opera North’s new production of Rigoletto is a daring, at times even cheeky update that makes the opera easily accessible to a modern audience while treating the exquisite score with the utmost respect.
Reviewer: David Cunningham