Recounting one of the bleakest, cruelest narratives in the core repertoire, Rigoletto depicts a noirish world of sexual predation, misogyny, despotism, revenge, murder, and… horrifically bad luck. Should all this be approached as timeless tragedy, timely social commentary – or merely as a guilty pleasure akin to consuming a thriller? It’s all too easy, of course, to shrug off the significance of the drama and declare that Verdi’s 1851 score is the only thing that matters. But the composer himself was uniquely inspired by the source. The censored Victor Hugo play from 1832 on which Rigoletto is based, he wrote, struck him “like a flash of lightning” as a topic “that cannot fail.”

Madison Leonard (Gilda) and Lester Lynch (Rigoletto) © Sunny Martini
Madison Leonard (Gilda) and Lester Lynch (Rigoletto)
© Sunny Martini

Australian director Lindy Hume combines all of the aforementioned approaches in the production she first staged at Opera New Zealand in 2012. Revived to open Seattle Opera’s new season – its first under incoming General Director Christina Scheppelmann – this Rigoletto transfers the licentious Mantuan court of the late Renaissance to today’s corridors of power and privilege.

Liparit Avetisyan (The Duke of Mantua) © Sunny Martini
Liparit Avetisyan (The Duke of Mantua)
© Sunny Martini

Hume initially modeled her depiction of the opera’s milieu of debauchery after the circle of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. But the staging readily evokes even more up-to-date dens of corruption where predator billionaires, assured of impunity, bask in excess. Indeed, I would have welcomed some more specifically barbed references to current world leaders. Hugo's original play, after all, got shut down at once and went unseen in France for a good half-century.

The rotating set by Richard Roberts moves efficiently from the Duke’s extravagant residence (a bit too tasteful to be a stand-in for Trump Tower) to Rigoletto’s modest but cosy home, and in and outside Sparafucile’s seedy bar, where the action culminates. Jason Morphetti’s lighting signals the stark contrast between the rulers and those they rule through every abuse of power.

Mixed into the realism – Sparafucile explains his trade to Rigoletto at a dark bus stop – are a few more-symbolic elements. The Duke’s residence remains ominously ever-present, looming overhead. Wall screens in the opening scene project images of the obviously narcissist Duke as well as menacing crows – an ironic reference to the line from his misogynistic ditty, “women are fickle/like feathers in the wind”? Or a fantasy-projection of Rigoletto's desire for revenge?

The opening party, in which the Duke appears to be celebrating his election victory, is less a Trimalchian feast than a ritual of sadistic humiliation and sexual abuse – with Rigoletto playing picador to the Duke's cuckolded victims. Hume drives home the feminist point that the patriarchal concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the Duke and his cronies has systemic consequences. Figuratively, this takes shape as the curse pronounced by Monterone – played with imposing, Commendatore-like grandeur by Clayton Brainerd. It's the others who will end up paying the price, while the Duke remains the rake unpunished: impeachment just won't happen.

Madison Leonard (Gilda) © Sunny Martini
Madison Leonard (Gilda)
© Sunny Martini

But Hume also shows the violence that goes along with this regime. In his angst over his daughter Gilda's protection, we see the jester tense up and harshly strike Giovanna – given a subversive touch by Nerys Jones – much as he is the victim of physical violence at the court. Hume emphasises that the women themselves have been subjected to dehumanising abuse to the point of internalising it. Like Gilda, Maddalena falls for the Duke and wants to protect him, and in this staging, she's the one who kills the disguised Gilda.

At the same time, this interpretation had to smooth over other layers of the opera. The admirable opening-night cast moreover brought aspects to their performance that didn't really jibe with Hume's focus on Rigoletto's contemporary social relevance. Making a sensational US debut, the young Armenian Liparit Avetisyan deployed his light, agile tenor with a charm and elegance difficult to square with the cruel ambience he's cultivated at court.

Lester Lynch (Rigoletto) © Philip Newton
Lester Lynch (Rigoletto)
© Philip Newton

As Gilda, Madison Leonard commanded both delicate filigree and remarkable vocal heft, and her portrayal suggested a good deal more agency and emotional complication than victimhood. Hume staged her first scene with the Duke, disguised as Gualtier Maldè, as one of panic, face-to-face with a sexual predator, but this was contradicted by the warmth of her great solo that followed. The scene of her kidnapping, as the all-male chorus surrounded her with flashlights, was genuinely eerie. Gilda's final exchange with her father was both radiant and heartbreaking.

Lester Lynch showed multiple dimensions to the title character, singing with nuance and satisfying dramatic variety. Early on, he conveyed Rigoletto's vulnerability, while his stage movement persuasively embodied the jester's physical disability. His transition from dissembling jester to heart-on-sleeve pleading in the post-orgy second act was remarkably effective. Ante Jerkunica depicted a moody, alienated Sparafucile. Emily Fons sang his sister and “decoy” Maddalena with a sultry, expressive intensity that made the sexily staged bar scene a highlight. Aside from a few overbaked moments in the pit, Carlo Montanaro presided over a singer-friendly, elastic, and richly detail-oriented account of the score.


****1