Fellini and Rigoletto

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Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave after Le roi s’amuse by Victor Hugo
Sydney Opera House: 1 November 2010
continues in Melbourne from 22 November

The Duke paws the Contessa di Ceprano as Rigoletto looks on. Photo: Branco Gaica.

Rigoletto – Warwick Fyfe
Gilda – Emma Matthews
Duke of Mantua – David Corcoran
Monterone – Gennadi Dubinsky
Ceprano – Samuel Dundas
Countess Ceprano – Jane Parkin
Sparafucile – David Parkin
Maddalena/Giovanna – Elizabeth Campbell
Marullo – Andrew Moran
Borsa – Stephen Smith
Usher – Clifford Plumpton
Page – Jodie McGuren

Conductor – Olliver-Philippe Cunéo
Australian Opera & Ballet Orchestra
Opera Australia Chorus

Director – Elijah Moshinsky
Revival Director – Cathy Dadd
Set & Costume Designer – Michael Yeargan
Lighting Designer – Robert Bryan

In a way this production is better Fellini than Fellini. Allowing influence from his films without being overly enamoured of them, Director Elijah Moshinsky manages to draw the opera into the modern era while intensifying Verdi’s tight drama. It would have been easy to let the great filmmaker’s sardonic sense of humour to infiltrate the opera and mock or belittle the characters to avoid falling too deeply into them, but on the contrary, the company seemed almost always to be sensitive to the characters. Verdi’s creation is remarkable how it holds such an intense dramatic tension for so long and with a story which could easily seem an uphill slog. He also manages somehow to keep some sympathy for Rigoletto and ambiguity for the Duke despite their despicable actions. As for the curse, though it is Monterone who first vocalises it, it is really Rigoletto who brings it down on himself.

To extend the cinema comparison, the opera also has a film noir tone, not only in the bleakness of the ending, but also in that the cursed main character seals their own fate with a chain of many wrong decisions. The suspense at the end builds without ever seeming artificial or manipulative for close to half an hour, reminding us that Alfred Hitchcock was never really the Master of Suspense. By the time Gilda is ready to walk through the door at the end to die, the tension is palpable and quite uncomfortable. Here young Gilda takes perhaps the bravest action of any character in theatre, film or literature.

From the start, the production recalls the cinema. The elaborate (for nowadays) stage mechanisms allow something like a camera pan: the set is a kind of full size dollhouse set on a spindle in the middle of the stage, which turns back and forth before the audience’s eyes to allow scenery changes on-the-fly. On one side is the Duke’s palace and on the other is a cut-away of Rigoletto’s house, with a dressing room and a back alley wedged in the corner in-between. The curtain is made from two thin black cloth sheets, one lifting up, the other parting in the middle, opening like a square iris. For the last several bars of the prelude, this opens part way, focussing attention on the cramped dressing room of Rigoletto who despairingly puts on his clown makeup. The room is peaceful and sepulchral, by contrast with the next scene. We are jolted out of the dressing room as the curtain opens fully and the set rotates round to the Duke’s ballroom, with the frenetic activity of his party. Verdi’s music already does much to make this party scene unsettling so the simple costumes and banal dancing of the partygoers is complementary. They wear elegant evening dresses and tuxedos with black bowties, early 1960’s in style. There are also one or two women dressed as chorus girls of that time with huge pink feather plumes in their hair, who are maybe the most Fellini-esque characters in the production. All dance in unison, twisting their hips to and fro.

The acting in this scene confirms the early ’60’s milieu. The Contessa di Ceprano hardly resists the Duke and as he pulls her away from the party by both hands, she turns to face her husband, directing her parting line at him. He is no less jealous, however. Monterone’s daughter actually appears in this scene too, preceding her father by a few minutes to dance with the Duke and Rigoletto, ironically enough. It is in a way a relief when Monterone comes in as stiff relatively as the statue in Don Giovanni and his very straight dry bass brings a new tone to the scene.

A film noir image comes into the following scene. In the dressing room, Sparafucile appears amongst Rigoletto’s wardrobe as he changes out of costume. The assassin is made that much shadier by the suggestion that he has been spying on the court or is somehow in the know. He follows Rigoletto out into the dark back alley behind the palace, apparently an urban palace. The alley is lit from directly above by a single light bulb and there is even an American-style dinged up metal garbage can (not so easy to find in the land of the wheelie bin!)

When Rigoletto gets home finally, There is already a strong feeling this man is under the influence of too many strong external forces, including his own appearance, and dragging them home with him. This perhaps makes his outburst in this next scene more understandable, though no more forgivable. His house is a narrow two level town house or terrace, and Gilda is sitting by the upstairs balcony reading an magazine and smoking out the window. When she hears her father coming, she frantically chucks the cigarette out the window and airs the room with the magazine before running down the stairs. In this scene in particular, Designer Michael Yeargan makes efficient use of the small Opera Theatre stage. Emma Mathews acts very well here, especially when she is not singing a line. She wears a pale blue collared cotton frock with a hemline just below the knees, matching hair band, and a perm’ — every bit a girl from the early 1960’s. She is put out, letting her head slump against her hand, elbow on the dining table when Rigoletto won’t give her her way and talk about her mother. But immediately as she realises the bitter memories she revived, she becomes tender, sensitive and loving as she comforts her father’s grief.

The duke, a convincing student in his green corduroys, tweed jacket with elbow patches and glasses, meanwhile sneaks into the house by bribing Giovanna, who is more a housekeeper-cook than a nurse for Gilda, as she makes Rigoletto’s spaghetti. He climbs a trellis to get in the first floor window. At the end of this scene, Gilda sings her aria with the very expressive flutes lead by Amanda Hollins, like a bird in its cage who would break the bars of its prison with its poignant, hopeful and generous melody.

When she does finally escape, she is being kidnapped, taped wrist and ankle and gagged, carried off by the seemingly well-practised courtiers carrying out their frat boy prank against Rigoletto. In the next scene, they boast to the Duke of their exploits of the night before by forming a lurchy chorus line, mocking those chorus girls at the party. The Duke is at first nearly ready to say “boys will be boys” or some other such nonsense but becomes angry when he realises who their victim was, which in turn gives way to his more wonted exuberant lechery when he realises this is an opportunity; they have hidden Gilda in his very own palace. When Gilda comes out to talk with Rigoletto, the courtiers finally leave (the last one carrying off an unconscious women who has been slumped over a chair since the party). Gilda is wearing the Duke’s dressing gown, adding another layer of ambiguity. But she is a woman now, capable of making her own decisions and potentially mistakes; she has met the serpent and nibbled the Fruit of Wisdom, for better or for worse. There is also some of the sense of Miranda’s “Oh brave new world with such men in it!” Such men indeed.

Rigoletto and his wheels. Photo; Branco Gaica.

Rigoletto and his wheels. Photo; Branco Gaica.

The final scene at Sparafucile’s inn is in a sultry enervating place on a river bank. Sparafucile in his dirty singlet slaps mosquitoes with a plastic swatter while Maddalena changes her clothes upstairs. It is a very convincing set, even though a redressing of Rigoletto’s house, again very efficient. Rigoletto and Gilda enter, driving up in a vintage Fiat. The headlights and the stage lighting make a very eery effect. Sparafucile casually carries crates of empty bottles back and forth, teasing the Duke’s hedonism inside and outside planning his murder with Rigoletto. The Duke meanwhile, in his T shirt, army fatigue pants and dogtags acts as if he owns the place, pawing Madalenna and drinking straight from the bottle. He is very aggressive and active (considering the oppressive weather) in his advances on Madalenna. The storm begins as Madelenna persuades Sparafucile to spare the Duke and kill anyone else instead and as Gilda decides to go in and save her lover and betrayer. Here the thunder sound effects, pre-recorded and played over the PA loudspeakers, go a little too far. A few crashes would be forgivable but they become distracting as they get too frequent and loud, and Verdi already provides the storm in his music. Also, there is a casualness to David Parkin’s and Elizabeth Campbell’s assassins’ amorality which diminishes the tension of the scene very slightly, but certainly doesn’t ruin it.

The last duet between the dying Gilda and Rigoletto has him leaning against the bumper of his car cradling her. Emma Mathew’s voice here was very soft but projected well, and was as brittle and drawn out as a tungsten wire, as if the breath of her music were drawing out her soul. Warsick Fyfe did not dominate or step of this fragile sound, but brought across his character’s despair in the very timbre of his voice. His final line “Ah, la maladizione!” thus sounds internalised, as if he curses himself.

Warsick Fyfe sang very consistently through the whole evening. His voice was always balanced in the ensembles, especially when he had to “yell” at the chorus of courtiers in frustration in Act II, keeping his fine and expressive tone quality. His Rigoletto was never really grotesque or monstrous, which would otherwise be an easy accusation of a man who locks up his daughter with or without the hunchback. He is all too like a human being which I think Verdi intended.

Emma Mathews, though perhaps a little weak in her very first song, had no problems later and didn’t over compensate for the loudness of David Cocoran’s Duke in her duets. He had a forceful and rather bright brassy tone in the quieter of his songs, but too often belted out at full volume, which was painfully loud. Though Emma Mathews could be heard somewhat over him, Elizabeth Campbell’s voice was dominated in the duets.

David Parkins kept mostly one dry, shady but forceful tone throughout the opera which did give his character a coldness and insouciance but it came across as a bit flat in the last scene. But the low note he held after he exited the stage in Act I showed good control.

About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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