Opera North: Rigoletto – Leeds Grand Theater
Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Librettist: Francesco Maria Piave
Director: Femi Elufowoju Jr.
Conductor: Garry Walker
Opera North’s winter season started on a gloomy note with the opening performance of Rigoletto dedicated to the memory of Rafael Rojas, the Mexican tenor who died this week at the age of 59. He returned regularly to Opera North for 20 years and was due to play Don Jose in this season Carmen. Anyone looking for a reason for his huge popularity at Leeds need only watch him sing nessun dormitory in a mall on Facebook or YouTube – captivating!
As for Rigoletto it’s colorful and imaginative, with a director who has a concept rather than mere ideas and an international cast with outstanding, not weak performances. As in the recent case of the company Carmen, Opera North takes the opportunity presented by a well-known and beloved favorite to rework the plot. The difference is that Femi Elufofoju Jr has a thoughtful interpretation. Rigoletto is not a hurried buffoon, but a straight black man – and that’s why he’s an underdog. It’s fine, though without the deformity, bonnet, and bells, her “difference” isn’t as strong as it might be in the opening act.
Elufowoju’s direction is bold and decisive, but, until the fascinating later stages, prone to failure to be left well alone. Visual gags, guaranteed to be laughable (Giovanna patrolling with a rifle, the elevator lights come on in the Duke’s palace), cut the ends of serious tunes. The white-clad figures, dressed as footmen or pages and seemingly on loan from Mozart, are a tricky nuisance and there are too many aimless leaps and bounds. But there is no doubt that eventually Elufofoju Rigoletto hits where it hurts: this offstage Mobile data chills as it should be – the duke is alive, who’s in the bag? We know, but we hold our breath when Rigoletto finds out.
In Act 1, human relationships aren’t always neat, but there are some great moments in the whirlwind of sometimes confusing action. Monterone is a small part, but Verdi wrote: “The whole theme lies in the curse (of Monterone)”. You can’t doubt it in Sir Willard White’s magnificent delivery – and Elufofoju’s production rightly highlights the curse, even in the opera’s closing seconds. Also in Act 1 Nome Caro, if an overly theatrical touch in the presentation, gives the first indication of the artistry of American soprano Jasmine Habersham.
After the intermission, personal relationships come into play, with Act 2 ending with a hair-raising If vendetta of Habersham and Eric Greene before Act 3 exerts its car crash appeal, the trio accompanied by thunder and lightning pushing you back into your seats. If you ever doubt Verdi’s dramatic genius, hang on to the final stages of Channel – melodramatic, but brilliantly realized.
Jasmine Habersham’s soaring lyricism – as well as her ability to cut through the orchestra in Act 3’s mighty trio – makes a huge impression, and as Gilda she overcomes some unfortunate costume choices. Roman Arndt is nimble, both vocally and physically, as a Duke, but doesn’t quite convince as an evil seducer. Eric Greene’s dignified and beautifully articulated Rigoletto takes time to register the character’s extremes of emotion, but in the end, it’s a powerfully moving performance.
The murderous siblings are safe in the hands of Callum Thorpe, any nonchalant menace as Sparafucile, and suitably seductive Alyona Abramova as Maddalena. A solid supporting cast particularly sets the naughty boys of the Duke’s court apart, with Themba Mvula’s Marullo making a particular impact.
Rae Smith’s designs perfectly reflect the concept of Elufofoju in their contrasts, imagination and occasional pointless silliness. Its box design for the sets works admirably and the climactic power of Act 3 owes little to its terrific city dump creation, Maddalena doing her assignment well with the Duke in the back seat of a wrecked car. . Under Garry Walker, the orchestral playing, always polished and sharp, really catches fire after the intermission.
Until February 19, 2022