What’s old is made new again as Opera Australia returns to Elijah Moshinsky's much-loved 1991 production of Rigoletto with a young trio of considerable talent in the principal roles. While not flawless, their performances were fundamental to the emotional and musical pleasures of opening night – when the drama unexpectedly began even before the conductor raised his baton.

Amartuvshin Enkhbat (Rigoletto) and Liparit Avetisyan (Duke of Mantua) © Jeff Busby
Amartuvshin Enkhbat (Rigoletto) and Liparit Avetisyan (Duke of Mantua)
© Jeff Busby

One of Verdi's most popular operas ever since its 1851 premiere in Venice, Rigoletto centres on the title character, a libertine duke's jester. While publicly villainous, at home he conceals that which he treasures above all else: his innocent daughter, Gilda. She falls in love with the duke (who is disguised as a poor student), then is abducted by his unwitting courtiers, who believe Gilda to be Rigoletto's mistress. Her furious father hires an assassin to murder the duke, with tragic results.

In his Australian debut, Mongolian baritone Amartuvshin Enkhbat lacked venom during Act 1, where close attention to the lyrics is required to fully appreciate how Rigoletto is abetting the duke’s appalling behaviour while also antagonising the courtiers. If the more convincing rage and, in particular, the tenderness Enkhbat exuded later didn’t quite make up for it, the quality of his voice surely did – a glorious natural instrument of unwavering power and warm, mellifluous tone.

As the hedonistic duke, Armenian tenor Liparit Avetisyan also revealed a strong, pleasing voice, whose lyricism and agility were particularly well showcased in his Act 2 arias. He sang the show-stopper “La donna è mobile” with a welcome balance of restraint and flair (albeit with a couple of tiny flickers in the top notes), which was also how Avetisyan interpreted his character dramatically.

Making her role debut as Gilda, Stacey Alleaume delivered a performance of vocal splendour and dramatic charm. Although her young voice was pushed a little too hard at times, this emerging Melbourne soprano’s expressiveness and dynamic control, especially during her duets with Enkhbat, mark her as one to watch.

The supporting cast were in fine form, particularly Roberto Scandiuzzi, whose sure, rumbling bass heightened the assassin Sparafucile’s menace, and Sian Sharp (née Pendry), who revealed plenty of leg and a sultry mezzo as his seductive sister and accomplice, Maddalena. The predominantly male chorus was well-rehearsed, singing and cavorting with the ladies at the duke’s party with equal confidence. Led by conductor Andrea Licata, Orchestra Victoria were at ease with both the high melodrama of Verdi's score and its passages of delicate restraint.

The 2014 production that conjured Rigoletto’s original Renaissance setting seems to have been decreed a failed experiment by Opera Australia, which has wheeled out Moshinsky's production instead. Evoking the post-World War 2 Italy of Fellini’s film La dolce vita, Michael Yeargan's design is still fresh and compelling, a mix of moneyed glamour, working-class simplicity and low-life grime revealed on a compact rotating set. His elegant costumes for Act 1’s party are particularly impressive, and revival director Hugh Halliday maintains the tension of excess always on the verge of spilling over into tragedy.

A footnote to opening night’s performance was the latest protest by disgruntled nonagenarian composer George Dreyfus, who rose to his feet in the front row moments before curtain-up. Although armed with a megaphone, he could not be heard even from where I was seated approximately eight rows away, so the audience soon expressed their annoyance about the delay. Dreyfus refused to move on, but was eventually ejected by staff, and the performance began some 20 minutes late. Hats off to the cast and orchestra, who seemed to take the impromptu delay in their stride.

****1