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Schemes, Lies, Trickery, Disguise - Classic Opera

6 May 2004


One of the opera world's most famous songs - La Donna e Mobile - and one of its greatest characters - Rigoletto, the court jester - come to the stage in the spine-tingling new production from The NBR New Zealand Opera. The NZI Winter Season of Rigoletto brings a powerful portrayal of Verdi's tragic masterpiece to Auckland and Wellington during May and June.

Full of well-known melodies and with a heart-rending story of cruelty and love in a world of deception, Rigoletto has been one of the world's favourite operas for over 150 years. This new production boasts a highly impressive international creative team and opera cast, including one of the title role's most acclaimed interpreters - Australian performer Michael Lewis. Leading the production is director Matthew Richardson and conductor Nicholas Braithwaite - the pair behind last year's bold and widely acclaimed Boris Godunov.

Verdi's tight and fast-paced drama is built around three fascinating central characters, but at its heart is the elusive court jester and hunchback, Rigoletto. His days are filled with taunts and fawning efforts to help his employer, the Duke, find new female prey. But without his public mask Rigoletto is a man with a heart, devoted to Gilda, his hidden daughter. Soon Rigoletto can no longer keep these public and private worlds apart as he is drawn into a plot that will ultimately destroy the one thing he loves. For as a terrifying curse takes effect he discovers that the Duke's next victim is to be none other than Gilda. Rigoletto's anguished attempts to rise above the curse and save his daughter, make for a riveting night of opera.

Director Matthew Richardson holds deep respect for Rigoletto's towering place in the world of opera.

"It's been a terrific hit for 150 years and rightly so," he says. "It's one of those rare pieces where Verdi has hit on something that's capable of being popular but also has tremendous dramatic depth so that it's effective on both levels. It is full of non-stop action from characters that are fantastically well-drawn and recognisable, and with a central character of Shakespearean stature - Rigoletto.

"This is melodrama in the best sense of the word - a heightened drama through music which expresses extremes," explains Richardson. "Yet the audience can always identify with the story's humanity. It's pretty dark stuff yet totally compelling - you can't not watch! That makes it a thrilling piece to be part of and see.

"When the curtain goes up you are invited to cross the threshold into theatricality. We're giving the audience a peep into an extreme and slightly perverse world, where people lie about themselves and take on disguises. It's one of deception and illusion where nothing is what it seems. Everyone is deceiving somebody and nobody quite understands anyone else - until it is too late."

Esteemed conductor, Nicholas Braithwaite says Verdi's memorable and very hummable tunes grab us instantly but fit the unfolding drama perfectly.

"I'm sure there's few people out there who wouldn't have their own rendition of La Donna e Mobile - probably sung in the shower!" he laughs. "But what they probably don't know, is that in the actual opera it's sung by a philanderer - the Duke - who's a rather shallow character expressing how superficial and easy women are!"

Charged with visually manifesting Rigoletto's illusionary and unstable world is Jon Morrell, production designer, and Tony Rabbit, lighting designer. Morrell has opted for stylishly timeless and uncluttered set designs, complimented with vibrantly coloured costumes giving a sumptuous feel to the production.

Australian singer Michael Lewis has a special affinity with Rigoletto, which comes from having performed the title role roughly 120 times for some of the world's leading opera houses including Teatro La Fenice in Venice, English National Opera and Opera Australia. Lewis's interpretation is sought after worldwide and he clocks up a milestone twelfth production here in New Zealand.

Lewis will be joined by fellow Australian, Rosario la Spina in the role of the philandering Duke and Italian soprano Maria Costanza Nocentini as Gilda, in their New Zealand debuts. John Brunato and Stephen Bennett, also from Australia, make a welcome return to New Zealand in the roles of Count Ceprano and Sparafucile, respectively. Both performed here last year; Brunato in The NBR New Zealand Opera's new New Zealand work, The Prodigal Child, in Auckland and Bennett in the high-impact role of Polyphemus in the company's Handel opera, Acis & Galatea.

New Zealand performers taking the stage include Eddie Muliaumaseali'i, Shaun Dixon, Valeriy Maksymov, Kate Spence, Elaine Wogan and Kristen Darragh.

The NZI Winter Season of Rigoletto opens at the ASB Theatre, The Edge, Aotea Centre Auckland 27 May through 4 June, and then at Wellington's Westpac St James Theatre from 17 to 26 June.


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