Review: twin tragedies by Opera Australia

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BOTH “Rigoletto” and “Otello” are both operas of high tragedy in which the dramaturgy merits almost as much comment on the music, so it is singular that operas Australia should be playing them side-by-side.

Opera Australia, Rigoletto, photo by Jeff-Busby
Opera Australia, Rigoletto, photo by Jeff-Busby

OA’s “Rigoletto” is a new production by Roger Hodgman, who admits in his notes that he is more familiar with straight theatre than with the conventions of opera.

This is evident, and with an operatic actor as fine as Giorgio Caoduro in the role of the hunchback jester whose sharp tongue and Machiavellian arrogance bring him down, the stage is set for a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare.

Verdi and his librettist Piave based the opera on an 1853 Victor Hugo play called “Le roi s’amuse”, which draw on the life of the libertine French King Francis I, a seemingly Teflon-coated monarch. His counterpart, the Duke of Mantua in “Rigoletto” is played with casual aplomb by Gianluca Terranova, who sails through his arias and his assignations without a scratch.

Hodgman and his set designer Richard Roberts have rejected the semi-joyous, ‘La Dolce Vita’ atmosphere of an earlier OA production, taking the opera back into a darker period of history where corruption and heartlessness reign supreme. Conductor Renato Palumbo seems perfectly wedded to this interpretation in his quietly insinuating approach to the score.

With a beautifully-judged performance by Emma Matthews as Gilda, Rigoletto’s innocent daughter, shown as brave and vulnerable, the opera moves inexorably to its tragic conclusion. In the hands of Caoduro, the jester realises, in the manner of Greek tragedy, that although he has been cursed by Count Monterone, he himself has been the means of his own downfall.

Mention must be of the sinister quality brought to this production by bass David Parkin in the role of the professional assassin Sparafucile. The appalling scene where he and his seductress sister, played with sympathy by Sian Pendry, ply their trade, is underscored by the orchestra and subtle vocals that whip up a menacing storm.

So moving was that venerable of this “Rigoletto” that it came as something of an anticlimax to read program notes that attempted a psychological analysis of the hunchback.

Jacqueline Dark as Emilia, Lianna Haroutounian as Desdemona, Pelham Andrews as Lodovico, David Corcoran as Roderigo and James Egglestone as Cassio. Photo Branco Gaica
Jacqueline Dark as Emilia, Lianna Haroutounian as Desdemona, Pelham Andrews as Lodovico, David Corcoran as Roderigo and James Egglestone as Cassio. Photo Branco Gaica

“Otello” is, of course, one of Verdi’s Shakespearean operas, based on a very much greater play than Victor Hugo’s. That makes it much more difficult to adapt to the operatic medium, as Verdi and his librettist Boito grapple with the intricacies of this tale of manipulation and jealousy.

The opening of the Shakespeare is changed from domestic Venice to a dramatic sea-battle and the ending sees Othello’s loving sacrificial act of smothering turned into a brutal strangulation.

Although often regarded as an unconventional Verdi opera, “Otello” in fact uses many of the conventions of 19th-century opera – the hero-tenor, the heroine-soprano and the villain-baritone. As well, the chorus plays a significant part in this opera, magnificent in the mass scene before the Venetian ambassadors.

This production, which has been in the repertoire since 2003, is directed by Harry Kupfer, and is staged on a huge pseudo-Renaissance flight of stairs, oddly mismatched with pre-WWII costumes. This tends to suppress the intimacy in the opera, especially as Otello and Desdemona are required to act out both their amorous and their tormented scenes on the staircase. In spite of that NZ tenor Simon O’Neill as Otello and Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian as Desdemona were able to make so poignant and ending to the opera. Haroutounian’s beautiful rendition of “The Willow Song” and the Ave Maria were painful in the extreme for their absolute conviction.

Claudio Sgura as Iago and Simon O'Neill as Otello. Photo  Branco Gaica.
Claudio Sgura as Iago and Simon O’Neill as Otello. Photo Branco Gaica.

Dramatically there is a significant weakness in Verdi’s “Otello” and despite Claudio Sgura’s straightforward approach to the role of Iago, he cannot overcome it. For, lacking both nuance and affability (‘honest Iago’) Verdi’s Iago as written comes across as little more than a cardboard personification of evil. That makes Othello his gull, his dupe, and there is little in the libretto which explains how such a great man can have fallen so far.

To be sure O’Neill, the lightest-skinned Otello I have ever seen by the way, gives of his best, but in the end what moves us is the pathos of Desdemona’s ruin rather than the fall of a tragic hero.

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