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Rigoletto - Review

Rigoletto
Eternity Opera
Until 31 August
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

Newcomers to the Wellington scene, Eternity Opera have achieved immense success with recent productions of Don Giovanni and Madama Butterfly, among others. This production is, though, much less of a triumph, perhaps because they have bitten off such a big opera. The above productions scaled down relatively well, but Rigoletto, replete with musical intensity and restless movement, is a different story.

In previous productions, the orchestra, under the guidance of Matthew Ross, have consistently impressed me, managing perfectly well with a reduced number of players and even bringing out previously hidden elements of the score. This time round, though, they just felt under-rehearsed and tentative, especially in the strings, while some of the flute lines (in Caro Nome, for instance) were clunky and something went horribly wrong with at least one of the big timpani notes in the first act. At times even basic requirements of tuning seemed a stretch.

Other weaknesses were evident in the opening scene. The only reason that crowd scenes typically work in operas is that they have immaculate costumes and extravagant sets to distract from the fact that a bunch of non-actors are standing around pretending to do something while actually having nothing to do. In this case, sadly, the costumes had a slightly thrown-together look and there was essentially no set beyond some concrete walls and a few chairs, leaving the crowd scenes feeling distinctly unconvincing. It didn’t help that some of the supporting voices were weak. Like everyone else in the audience (I imagine), I completely understand that Eternity are working with much smaller budgets than, say, New Zealand Opera, and are putting on some exceptional productions within those limits; I just feel this might have been the wrong story to choose.

Fortunately the quality of the principals was generally strong. Robert Lindsay as Sparafucile and Jess Segal as Maddalena were a splendid pair, he a very elegant young roughneck and she a fine combination of mystery and menace. She also took advantage of the emotional depths on offer, giving us a convincing portrayal of an icy exterior melting under the heat of the Duke’s ardour, and the genuine tenderness within. Roger Wilson was as always in fine voice as Monterone, his upright bearing lending added dignity to a character who acts as the story’s moral core.

Boyd Owen, meanwhile, carried on where he left off in Madama Butterfly. His bright, clear tone and excellent diction allowed him immaculate communication with the audience, with his Act 4 aria Bella Figlia Dell’amore a particular highlight. And his characterisation certainly captured the Duke’s smugness. I would have liked more variation in tonal colour, though. And in acting terms what was missing, for me, was a sense of just how genuinely evil – borderline psychopath, even – the Duke is: I would have liked to see a streak of real unadulterated nastiness.

Elsewhere, I wasn’t sure that Hannah Catrin Jones, so spectacular in Butterfly, was the ideal choice for Gilda, her rich voice being very much that of a mature woman rather than a young girl. Nor did the timbre of her voice quite blend with Owen’s. But her voice was arrestingly good in some of her solos, while her duets with James Clayton as Rigoletto were tenderness itself.

So much of the production, of course, hangs on the title role – and on Friday night we were fortunate to witness a performance that rendered all other flaws almost irrelevant. In all the operatic performances I have seen, including some from world stars, I have seen very few that can compare with what Clayton produced on the boards of the Hannah Playhouse.

His singing was, as you would expect, immensely skilled, the voice deep and rich, the variations in timbre and emotion absolutely spot on. But what really elevated his performance was its perfect marriage of singing to acting. He gave us pretty well everything that the character potentially possesses: this was a Rigoletto who made perfect sense, one whose gleeful nastiness flowed naturally into and out of his desperate tenderness for a daughter he tried to protect against the world.

From the early scenes, with Rigoletto dressed up as a kind of 60s kid, through the utterly realistic pivot as he is cursed by Monterone, to the brittle belligerence of the final scenes, this was a performance of complete conviction, right down to the way his face would soften from a hard jester’s mask into the crumpled weariness of a father. It was something truly extraordinary, and worth the admission price all by itself.

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