Review / Glittery ‘Rigoletto’ feels embarrassingly tired

theatre / “Rigoletto”, Sydney Opera House, until August 24. Reviewed by HELEN MUSA

Dalibor Jenis as Rigoletto, Gennadi Dubinsky as Monterone, and the Opera Australia Chorus. Photo by Prudence Upton

THIS famous “La Dolce Vita” of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” by Elijah Moshinsky has been one of the most popular standards in Opera Australia’s repertoire since its first performance in 1991, but it’s due for retirement.

The production draws its visual inspiration from Fellini’s 1960 film and the glittery world of the Roman post-war period, with the remains of a self-indulgent aristocracy seen in an orgiastic beach-house party. It seemed like a good idea in 1991, but now feels almost embarrassingly tired now, with opera singers forced to twist the night away while singing.

And not just the principals. In an opera dominated by male voices, the Opera Australia Chorus too are forced into horseplay, notably a “comic” demonstration of how they abducted a young woman for a laugh seeming painfully unfunny.

Dalibor Jenis as Rigoletto. Photo by Prudence Upton

Piave’s libretto is partly to blame, with sketchy motivations for all but the central character, played here by Slovak baritone Dalibor Jenis, with more force than nuance.

Undoubtedly a contemporary director could find a way around the dodgier aspects of the story to throw light on the society in which such a story can unfold. Repeated words like “vendetta” and “curse” indicate more ancient dramatic antecedents for this tale of the vicious hunchback who brings destruction on himself.

Conductor Renato Palumbo brings the Opera Australia Orchestra in at a slow and subtle pace, creating a problem for revival director Hugh Halliday in building intensity throughout opening scenes of decadence.

Happily, the extraordinary performance of Russian soprano Irina Lungu as Rigoletto’s naive daughter Gilda, means that the improbability of the action is swept away whenever she appears. Her vocal control in the ACT I aria, “Caro nome”, and in her dying moments is simply superb.

Dalibor Jenis as Rigoletto and Irina Lungu as Gilda. Photo by Prudence Upton

But although she looked shell-shocked in Act II after emerging from the Duke’s rooms and convincing Rigoletto “the Duke has raped her”, Lungu’s performance gives little clue as to what really happened behind closed doors, except that she’s prepared to die for her seducer.

Italian Gianluca Terranova goes through the motions as the libertine Duke of Mantua but largely without charisma. Here too the libretto is exceedingly sketchy on how he gets his way with women. By contrast, bass Gennadi Dubinsky as Monterone, the father sentenced for defending this daughter’s honour, dominates the stage brilliantly as he curses Rigoletto and the unrepentant Duke.

The storm-ridden final act at the home of the assassin Sparafucile (Taras Berezhansky) and his sister Maddalena (Sian Pendry) is superbly handled by Palumbo and the orchestra and despite the busy plot with its comings and goings, the last, unbearable moments between Rigoletto and Gilda are most affecting.

For seasoned opera-goers familiar with “Rigoletto”, willing suspension of disbelief is an option, but this writer was sitting next to a much younger person who had never seen the opera before and who was simply perplexed by what he saw on stage.

An up-to-date director who could focus less on visual diversions and more on the interaction of characters might well be able to unravel some of these mysteries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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