Shortly into Act 3 of Verdi Rigoletto, the licentious Duke of Mantua sings “La donna è mobile” (Women are as fickle as a feather in the wind). The composer knew that this canzone would be an instant success, demanding that the performers didn’t whistle it in public before its 1851 première, and it has remained an iconic operatic melody ever since, entering the collective unconscious as a signifier of Italian opera as well as being a likeable, jaunty tune. Experiencing it during the full tragedy of Rigoletto, however, surrounded by a Glasgow audience tapping their feet, and in the light of the heightened public awareness of atrocious sexual abuse scandals, is much more troubling. As Scottish Opera’s General Director Alex Reedijk points out in his programme welcome, this revival of Matthew Richardson’s 2011 production couldn’t be more relevant. If you know anyone who claims not to understand the concept of patriarchy, direct them immediately to Verdi’s Rigoletto, and to this particularly unflinching production of it, and let some vital discussions about sexuality, violence and society ensue.

Lina Johnson (Gilda) © Julie Howden
Lina Johnson (Gilda)
© Julie Howden

It is a man’s world. The eponymous court jester, bitter and deformed, participates in a sneering, mocking society of bourgeois men who treat women as objects to be seduced, violated and discarded as proof of their dominating virility. Early in the plot, Count Monterone, whose daughter was the latest victim of the Duke, curses Rigoletto for his complicity. In Act 2, Rigoletto’s naïve 16-year-old daughter, Gilda, is taken advantage of by the Duke, with whom she is blindly in love, and her father is overcome with an uncontrollable need for bloodthirsty vengeance. But why does Gilda herself disrupt her father’s path of retribution in dedication to the man who merely used her for his own gratification?

Aris Argiris (Rigoletto) and Lina Johnson (Gilda) © Julie Howden
Aris Argiris (Rigoletto) and Lina Johnson (Gilda)
© Julie Howden

Gilda vacillates between the innocent purity that her father idealises and the slave to love that the Duke desires. She is trapped in two competing patriarchal visions of femininity, never breaking out of this double-bind to become a fully autonomous, self-defined woman.  Norwegian soprano Lina Johnson was the star of the night, giving us a poignant, stunningly nuanced portrayal of Gilda, especially in “Caro nome”: doll-like and artificial in the presence of her father; soon, however, she was on the window sill, swinging back and forth on a hinge, with a saturated blue sky revealed behind her; then she balances across the length of the window-sill. All the while, Johnson’s vocal qualities were supple and affecting with an impressive messa di voce. Gilda is only just starting to find her own way in life, but the devastating denouement in Act 3 cuts this journey short.

Not all the symbolism in Richardson’s production is so subtle, but it is grotesquely effective. Mannequins are used to represent women being courted by the male singers of the chorus; later, in the Duke’s own bedroom, mannequin body parts are strewn across the floor. There was also some striking use of lighting and colour to intensify the psychology and character motivations at certain moments. Some of the most striking scenes took place with Rigoletto alone in front of a black screen with only one chalk-marked door, perhaps the door into the frightening patriarchal psyche. The house in which the final murder takes place is expressionistically slanted and its stormy atmosphere is genuinely chilling.

Adam Smith (Duke), Sioned Gwen Davies (Maddalena), Lina Johnson (Gilda) and Aris Argiris (Rigoletto) © Julie Howden
Adam Smith (Duke), Sioned Gwen Davies (Maddalena), Lina Johnson (Gilda) and Aris Argiris (Rigoletto)
© Julie Howden

Greek baritone Aris Argiris was unfortunately suffering for a cold on opening night but he powered on regardless as Rigoletto. His voice intermittently deteriorated but he gave such an engrossing characterisation that the audience’s patience was never tested. British tenor Adam Smith’s Duke of Mantua left a little more to be desired; his voice often lacked projection but his acting was convincing. David Shipley and Sioned Gwen Davies, as the mercenary Sparafucile and his prostitute sister Maddalena respectively, gave memorable performances.

The Scottish Opera Orchestra was incisive and colourful under the baton of Rumon Gamba, although the chorus’ singing and stage blocking could have been further honed. Overall, Rigoletto is a powerful season opener and this is a production which may help to revive opera’s status as an art-form worth talking about – not so much for technical or aesthetic innovations, but instead for its illumination of the human condition, no matter how dark and disturbing it can be.

****1