Opera Loki’s vision for Rigoletto is strongly Victorian, with white painted faces, stage makeup and traditional, yet simple costumes. Directed by Rae Leaver, the production’s vision is that of “a ragged group of performers, fortune tellers and travellers [who] come together to perform a very special piece before they disband” – a concept you could blink and miss, if you hadn’t read the programme. Our performers do indeed look vividly Victorian, thanks to skilled costumiers Carolyn Bear and Pam Line, but a small scrap of silent stage business during the prelude doesn’t make much impact on what is, in general, a very straight and traditional reading of Rigoletto, to a piano accompaniment played energetically by Nick Fletcher. We are without much in the way of props or scenery, beyond a few wooden crates for general use, a shiny gold chain for the Duke, a knife for Sparafucile and of course the obligatory hessian sack required for the final denouement.
I am a big fan of minimalism. I am a big fan of budget opera, fringe opera, opera which surprises and shocks and intrigues new audiences, shabby or chic. But it pays to be careful about what you minimalise. When you have an opera whose (brilliant) plot hinges materially on a complex physical trick performed in the dark of night, involving, non-negotiably, a building and a ladder (Rigoletto’s unwitting assistance in the abduction of his own daughter), and you play out that plot point on an empty stage without any scenery in bright light, I am afraid you lose the audience. And this, really, was where an otherwise enjoyable and often brilliantly sung Rigoletto ran gruntingly aground.
The curse had been chillingly set out by Count Monterone (a highly enjoyable and assured operatic debut from Edward Price, singing with gravitas worthy of the Commendatore’s Ghost in Don Giovanni). Luci Briginshaw, after a slightly shrill start, revolutionised Gilda from “Gualtier Maldè! …Caro nome” onwards, giving a performance of heartbreaking softness, innocence and sincerity fuelled by singing which grew ever more fabulous as the night drew on. Daniel Joy made his Duke of Mantua a convincingly red-blooded sensualist, not always articulating his lines wonderfully clearly, but leaving us in no doubt whatsoever of his intentions through the thrilling physicality of his performance. Verdi spoils his Duke rotten with gorgeous tenor arias, and Joy gives us every hit number with deft exuberance, powerfully characterised. Alistair Sutherland was exceptionally well cast as Marullo, impressing us with a nonchalant nastiness which was every inch the bored and bitter courtier. Simon Grange made a noble and moving Count Ceprano.
Oliver Gibbs sings Rigoletto with lyric strength and sincerity, and puts his considerable acting talents to good use, always expressive in face and gesture. Navigating Rigoletto’s sharp switches from glee to fury, and acid biteback to murderous resolve, Gibbs is heartbreaking in his final tragic discovery of his daughter’s corpse. Unfortunately, with the crucial scene such a fuddle, it remained hard to perceive Rigoletto’s true and complex centre, or give him much latitude for his actions, unless you knew the opera really well. And, although many of us do know Rigoletto very well indeed, and millions of people across the planet can hum “La donna è mobile”, the fact remains that fringe opera is there to reach out not just to the cognoscenti, but also to the uninitiated. The test of a good production must therefore be a simple one: do we know what is going on? If we don’t, we have a problem. While Opera Loki’s stylish vision and skilful delivery would always make for an enjoyable evening whatever they chose to sing, the opaque muddle at this production’s heart might leave beginners feeling they ‘just didn’t quite get it’ – which, amidst such energy, skill and talent, would be a real pity. Even a sheet of MDF and some stacked-up boxes could have done the trick of just clarifying the action there, allowing Gibbs the chance to endow his Rigoletto with more fully realised moral jeopardy.
Verdi designed Rigoletto to include a late and unexpected treat in the wonderful character of Maddalena, Sparafucile’s sister, who only appears in Act III. Gemma Morsley did not disappoint, bringing both sensual fire and intriguing vulnerability to Maddalena, as well as a well-judged sense of comedy when she pleads with her murderous brother that the Duke is, quite simply, too handsome to die. Henry Grant Kerswell was a classic Sparafucile, surly and stubborn, also gloriously comic in his determination to kill someone because he has been paid to do so, though less honourably focused on whether his victim has to be the person specified by the client: one of Verdi’s darkest, funniest moments. This constant interplay between violence and humour - the grimace, and the grin, of the clown – is what can make Rigoletto so entertaining, and so profoundly disturbing. With Opera Loki, we were thoroughly entertained, interested and moved: but the black shiver of Rigoletto’s curse didn’t quite reach our spines.
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