Some fine singing in this new production, but too little dramatic light shines amidst the gloom.

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

June 26, 2014

“I have my tongue, he has a knife”. So speaks the sardonic jester Rigoletto in Verdi’s 1851 tale of sex, violence and vengeance set in mid 16th-century Mantua. Whether you shift to Rat Pack Las Vegas or Mafioso Sicily, the fact remains that Victor Hugo’s 1832 play Le Roi S’Amuse (not quite The King Plays With Himself, but tending in that direction) is one of the darker, steamier, more dramatic stories available to the 19th-century bel canto opera brigade. Darkness there is aplenty in Roger Hodgman’s new production for Opera Australia (at times you have to strain to catch a face through the gloom), but too many of the dramatic fireworks are of the purely vocal variety.

Hodgman and his creative team have chosen to go back to basics and set the action in Renaissance Italy, but awkwardly not quite. The sets, by Richard Roberts, are impressive. They’re clean-lined, they look good and they move beautifully to offer the director a range of enticing visuals. At times, Matt Scott’s moody lighting creates gripping, atmospheric imagery, such as the reveal of the assassin Sparafucile, whetting his knife in the night. Louring clouds scud across a screen at the back and there are some nice natural fire effects. Tracy Grant Lord’s costumes, on the other hand are a messy mix of gaudy 16th-century-cum-pantomime with a dash of Victoriana. Realised without any great concern for weight of fabric or wear and tear (save an obviously dipped skirt on a whore), they seem designed to confuse anyone trying to figure out where we are and when. There’s a painful tendency to state the obvious too – Gilda is a virgin therefore she’s a blonde and in white.

When a director chooses a time period in which to set his production, it is generally done to illuminate particular aspects of the work. Hodgman is true to Verdi, and that in itself is something, but his ‘traditional’ storytelling appears to have no revelatory focus and sheds little light on the interior lives of these emotionally charged characters. In short, if it wasn’t for some convincing individual acting and some truly outstanding singing, this could win an award for the least insightful opera production of the year.

Despite a promising opening where we see Rigoletto voyeuristically spying on the Duke hard at it with his latest score, this is a Rigoletto almost devoid of sexual tension and threatened (or actual) violence. The debauchery of the Ducal court is represented by a brief scene of obviously choreographed goodtime girls, two of whom bare their breasts for a millisecond to let us know what goes on in Mantua. The violence beneath this society’s veneer of civilisation is scarcely hinted at – anyone being taken to task or hauled off to execution is done so in the most demure fashion. If anyone sings of love they stand together, three-quarters on to the audience in stock positions. Hodgman fails to direct across Verdi’s conventional structural lines giving scenes an interior stop-start dynamic.

Individual performances, though, offer some significant compensation, and the production is fortunate in two intense and vocally assured singing actors who carry a fair bit of the show before them. As the titular jester, Italian baritone Giorgio Caoduro is on the young side for the role (and could look older one suspects), but nevertheless sings it with enormous authority. His virile, focussed tone cuts through the orchestral sound like an assassin’s knife and he imbues the character with a great deal of inner emotion. His handling of the words is exemplary. He spits out his nastier lines with relish, while pulling back to a creamy, smooth legato when required – an object lesson in textual comprehension. His physicality is studied, nuanced and effective, the ‘deformities’ very much in the audience’s face. He captures the unattractive, spiteful side of the jester who has colluded with his amoral Lord for far too long yet for all that he manages to win our hearts (just) through the complex relationship with his daughter. A flawed, misanthropic loner, yes, but a man who will bleed if you prick him. In time, one suspects, the top of the voice will darken, and then he really will be the complete package.

As his innocent daughter Gilda, one of the ‘sweetest’ roles in opera, Emma Matthews is on terrific form. Her bell-like top is beautifully integrated into the whole and her shaping of phrases, in one of her (vocally) most Sutherland-like performances, is a master class in bel canto style. Her classy suspensions in Caro Nome and the integration of moments of breathless passion and a ripping cadenza into the aria reveal enormous craft. A notoriously tricky role to pull off (the character can tend towards the insipid), Matthews manages to find some telling moments, such as when she places the Dukes hand around her waist. She cries real tears as well! The duet with her father when she admits to having being violated is immaculately paced and sung, Matthews moving the story forward with clarity, emotional honesty plus exquisite phrasing and breath control. Indeed, this scene is, as it should be, the emotional crux of the opera and both performers rise superbly to the challenge.

Gianluca Terranova comes and goes as the Duke. At times, as in the famous quartet Bella Figlia Dell’Amore, he’s vocally ideal. He’s well matched too in his ardent duet with Gilda. His bright, Italianate tenor has an old-fashioned in-your-face charm about it and he clearly loves his job. There’s no doubt that he has all the notes for the arias, and though he’s a tiny bit tight at the top when he chooses to throttle back on the sound, he can thrill when he really goes for it. However much he sings with admitted passion, though, he’s inclined to finish every solo as if to say “applaud me now” and that can become wearing. Dramatically he’s passable, but he fails to tap into the Duke’s darker side without offering the roguish charm of a Pavarotti, say.

As the moody, philosophical assassin Sparafucile, David Parkin delivers plenty of warm, firm-voiced bass tone. He has all the notes and isn’t afraid to use them, and given more breathing space by the orchestra he could register more tellingly. And he’s an impressively hulking presence. Sian Pendry negotiates the tessitura and awkward gear changes in the role of his sister Maddalena with style and plenty of fulsome tone. Again, more telling direction might deliver greater insights into this intriguing sibling relationship.

Amongst the (invariably) anonymous, busy Mantuan court, Samuel Dundas and Luke Gabbedy stand out vocally as Ceprano and Marullo. Dominica Matthews makes her mark as Giovanna (wearing what looks like the sack that Gilda will end up in later). Gennadi Dubinsky falls short as Monterone, really needing to deliver more vocal gravitas.

Renato Palumbo draws a nicely detailed sound from the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra and there are some terrific solos – the lovely obligato cello in Rigoletto’s Cortigiani, Vil Razza Dannata (though the beginning is taken terribly fast) and a fine oboe in Gilda’s Tutte Le Feste. Generally Palumbo tends towards the brisk, and this pays off in the bustling court scenes. Emma Matthews seems to have negotiated adequate breathing space in her arias, not quite so everybody else – both the Duke’s arias feel pushed in tempi and Rigoletto could benefit from a bit of vocal wiggle room at times.

All in all, then, an infuriating mix. Well worth seeing (and hearing) for Caoduro and Matthews in top form, but if it’s sex and violence you crave, best stay in and catch up on Game of Thrones.

Rigoletto is at the Sydney Opera House from June 26-August 24.