North East & YorkshireOperaReview

Opera North: Rigoletto – Leeds Grand Theatre

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi

Librettist: Francesco Maria Piave

Director: Femi Elufowoju Jr.

Conductor: Garry Walker

The Winter season at Opera North began on a sombre note with the opening performance of Rigoletto dedicated to the memory of Rafael Rojas, the Mexican tenor who died this week at the early age of 59. He regularly returned to Opera North over a 20-year period and had been scheduled to play Don Jose in this season’s Carmen. Anyone looking for a reason for his enormous popularity in Leeds needs only to watch him singing Nessun dorma in a shopping mall on Facebook or YouTube – riveting!

As for Rigoletto it is colourful and imaginative, with a director who has a concept rather than just ideas and an international cast with some outstanding performances and no weak ones. As with the company’s recent Carmen, Opera North takes the opportunity provided by a well-known and well-loved favourite to re-work the plot. The difference is that Femi Elufowoju Jr has a thought-through interpretation. Rigoletto is not a hunch-baked jester, but a fit upright black man – and that is why he is an outsider. It fits well, although, without the deformity and the cap and bells, his “difference” doesn’t register as strongly as it might in the opening act.

Elufowoju’s direction is bold and decisive, but, until the riveting later stages, prone to a failure to let well alone. Visual gags, guaranteed to raise a titter (Giovanna patrolling with a gun, the lift lights coming on in the Duke’s palace), cut across the ends of serious arias. The white-clad figures, dressed as footmen or pages and seemingly on loan from Mozart, are a fiddly nuisance and there is too much aimless hopping and leaping. But there is no doubt that finally Elufowoju’s Rigoletto hits where it hurts: that off-stage La donna e mobile chills as it should – the Duke is alive, who is in the sack? We know, but we hold our breath as Rigoletto finds out.

In Act 1 the human relationships don’t always come into sharp focus, but there are great moments among the swirl of sometimes confusing action. Monterone is a small part, but Verdi wrote, “The whole theme lies in (Monterone’s) curse.” You don’t doubt that in Sir Willard White’s magnificent delivery – and Elufowoju’s production rightly foregrounds the curse, even in the closing seconds of the opera. Also in Act 1 Caro nome, if a touch over-theatrical in presentation, gives the first indication of American soprano Jasmine Habersham’s artistry.

After the interval the personal relationships come into focus, Act 2 ending with a hair-raising Si vendetta from Habersham and Eric Greene before Act 3 exerts its car-crash appeal, the trio with accompanying thunder and lightning pinning you back in your seats. If you ever doubt Verdi’s dramatic genius, latch on to the closing stages of Rigoletto – melodramatic, but brilliantly done.

Jasmine Habersham’s soaring lyricism – plus her ability to cut across the orchestra in the mighty Act 3 trio – makes a huge impression and, as Gilda, she overcomes some unfortunate costume choices. Roman Arndt is agile, both vocally and physically, as the Duke, but doesn’t quite convince as the evil seducer. Eric Greene’s dignified and beautifully articulated Rigoletto takes time to register the character’s extremes of emotion, but by the end this is a powerfully moving portrayal.

The murderous siblings are secure in the hands of Callum Thorpe, all nonchalant menace as Sparafucile, and Alyona Abramova, suitably seductive as Maddalena. A strong supporting cast distinguishes especially well between the naughty boys at the Duke’s court, Themba Mvula’s Marullo making a particular impact.

Rae Smith’s designs perfectly reflect Elufowoju’s concept in their contrasts, imagination and occasional unnecessary silliness. Her box design for sets works admirably and the climactic power of Act 3 owes not a little to her terrific town dump creation, Maddalena making good her assignation with the Duke in the back seat of a wrecked car. Under Garry Walker the orchestral playing, always polished and pointed, really catches fire after the interval.

Runs until 19th February 2022

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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One Comment

  1. First time seeing this opera at the theatre but know the narrative – It is so good to see a modern interpretation work so well – I watched Carmen recently and sorry to say it was a ‘car crash’. However, in this case the casting and directing was impeccable in that the main players were believable, engaging and, Act 3 in particular, was spine chillingly dramatic.

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