Bright white neon strip-lighting of the sort found on shop fronts forms a huge frame for the libidinous Duke of Mantua’s wild party as Opera North's new Rigoletto opens, and it is soon apparent that this marks the production's modern relevances. Soon afterwards, a gilded frame (sets by Rae Smith) descends behind the laughing, sneering courtiers, holding a painting of a traditional marriage ceremony, signifying the old values being ignored. Director Femi Elufowoju Jr ensures that Verdi's opera, which originally opened in Austrian-controlled Venice in 1851 after problems with censors who thought it had too many subversive contemporary resonances, has a successful afterlife by doing more of the same. For a start, Rigoletto does not have a hump, an “anatomical anomaly” according to Elufowoju. His otherness comes from his belief that he will never be allowed to fully integrate into society, especially with the startlingly vicious aristocrats he is employed to entertain. He specifically wanted to cast a black singer not only as Rigoletto, but also as Gilda and Monterone, making this a memorable landmark production. 

Eric Greene (Rigoletto) and Jasmine Habersham (Gilda)
© Clive Barda

The inclusion of very modern references brings a disconcerting jokiness to the first scene, for example a bicycle delivery of pizzas is searched by the Duke’s security, and a spitted roast hog is wheeled in. The contrasts are enormous. In the same scene, Count Monterone, mocked by Rigoletto for his powerlessness after his daughter has been molested by the Duke, delivers his curse. The Count is played by Sir Willard White as a Nigerian chieftain. His authoritative voice was heard again, this time more stentorian, when he reappeared as a spirit at the end of the final act. Russian tenor Roman Arndt emphasised the Duke’s crowd-pleasing qualities particularly well, as well as his arrogance. His subtle interpretations were most evident in “La donna è mobile”, which was well worth waiting for in Act 3. Eric Greene was stunning as Rigoletto, most convincing when he railed against the vile courtiers in Act 2: I found his ragingly passionate “Cortigiani vil razza dannata” to be breathtaking, and he transitioned seemingly effortlessly into caring father and tragic victim of the curse.  

Sir Willard White (Monterone)
© Clive Barda

American soprano Jasmine Habersham was superb as Gilda, firmly establishing her character as virginal and devoured by the cruel world. She delivered an absolutely exquisite “Caro nome” as she mused on the man she adores. This aria, very challenging even for experienced coloratura sopranos, was faultless. It was sung partly on the back of a stuffed zebra, with a toucan on a perch in view, and concluded with her throwing a handful of golden glitter into the air, signs of her happy naivety. The abduction scene was not just innovatory but disturbing, due to the fact that all those doing the deed wore the same evil clown mask clamped over their heads. 

Jasmine Habersham (Gilda)
© Clive Barda

Habersham blended well with Greene, and was suitably tragic in Act 3, though I was not too sure about the insulated snowsuit she changed into before she was stabbed. Callum Thorpe’s bass voice conveyed plenty of edginess in his role as the murderer Sparafucile, and he peeled an apple with his gleaming knife in a way which prompted the recollection that this opera has been produced in a Mafia context. The set here depicts an out-of-town district of Mantua which is part of a dystopian version of a modern city, with scruffy tents, dismal lighting and an abandoned car. Here, the neon lighting is redeployed to flash for a spectacular storm sequence. Maddalena, Sparafucile's sister, here played by Russian mezzo Alyona Abramova, was played as a slinky sex worker who seduces the Duke, who is slumming it to extremes. He was obviously not fazed by a brothel in a tent, which made his aria about the fickleness of women very poignant. Abramova’s rich, nuanced singing convinced me that she is soon destined for much bigger roles.  

Eric Greene (Rigoletto) and Roman Arndt (Duke of Mantua)
© Clive Barda

As usual, the Opera North Chorus impressed, with terrific ensemble singing and tightly choreographed action, and the orchestra was relentlessly on top form under conductor Garry Walker. What worked for Verdi and his librettist Piave, and with the play on which it is based, Victor Hugo's Le Roi s’amuse, can still work today. This Rigoletto is innovatory, provocative... and very connected to the modern world.