Warwick Fyfe’s hunch-backed sociopathic jester heads a fine cast in this new production of Verdi’s classic.

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

April 12, 2014

From conductor, Renato Palumbo’s initial downbeat, this new OA production of Verdi’s 1851 masterpiece – replacing the much-loved and well-trodden production by Elijah Moshinsky – was a tour-de-force at opening night in Melbourne. Based on Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse (1832) the plot and dramatic structure of Rigoletto is simultaneously sordid and electrifyingly absorbing with its overtones of excess, lasciviousness and its explorations of underlying psychological familial trauma.

Whilst an inspirational gift for a theatrical composer of Verdi’s stature, this dichotomy of dramatic intent places unprecedented demands upon singers – and completely dispels the notion in contemporary opera production that opera artists don’t also have to be fine actors! If you want to see real drama-in-action, go and see this production and marvel at Warwick Fyfe’s interpretation of Verdi’s eponymous buffoon.

Fyfe’s hunch-backed jester is a controlled study in sociopathic behaviour, partially ameliorated by his ingenuous, albeit stlfling, love for his daughter Gilda. It has a detached coldness about it that is mesmerising to watch unfold over two-and-a-half hours. The interpretation is a courageous choice, which pays off in Rigoletto’s soliloquy Pari siamo in the second scene of Act One. Fyfe’s performance is consummate and chillingly mesmerising. And then it gets better.

Equally, Irina Dubrovskaya’s performance as the ill-fated Gilda is nothing short of exquisite. She excises, once and for all, Verdi’s disingenuousness in having once described his only soprano aria in this opera – the famous cavatina Caro Nome – as requiring little in the way of agility. Not only does she possess a fragile tenderness, she displays a febrile vocal dexterity that is breathtaking. Dubrovskaya’s handling of the repeated musical intervals of a sixth, whilst investing the musical line with the necessary textural variations in colour and emotion – an unqualified challenge for any artist in this role, to say nothing of her perfectly in-tune, high C Sharp in the cadenza – is sublime.

Sublime also accurately reflects the playing of Orchestra Victoria in this production. The contribution of the orchestra is too easily under-recognised in this musical drama – it’s almost a separate character. One should also not forget the demanding off-stage role of the men’s chorus (especially during the Act Three storm sequence). Palumbo’s authoritative direction keeps the momentum well forward, with an edge-of-your-seat excitement that is gripping. Balance between the stage and pit for the most part is excellent throughout. If I have one gripe, it is that the conductor’s podium needs to be further reinforced to damp the maestro’s controlled exhortations to his players. The resulting noise is an unwanted intrusion all evening.

The role of the Duke of Mantua as given by the Italian tenor, Gianluca Terranova, is noteworthy. This Verdian character is one of the early precedents for the verist creations of fin de siècle Italian opera. Verdi’s protagonist remains, in many ways, far more complex and therein more demanding. Terranova’s vocal sensitivities are exemplified in his cabaletta and aria from Act Two (Ella mi fu rapita…Parmi veder le lagrime). Whilst not overly heavy or dramatic, his performance exudes a control and finesse that is artfully balanced.  The La donna é mobile that followed is flawlessly articulated, with a ripping high B at the end of the second verse.

The litmus test for any production of Rigoletto is, perhaps, best encapsulated in the tavern setting of Act Three. With the addition of Daniel Sumegi’s vocally menacing Sparafucile and a beautifully understated performance by Sian Pendry as his conniving sister, Maddalena, the scene reflects the care that has been lavished on this production. The balance of the celebrated quartet – both between singers themselves and with the orchestra – is wonderful. Ms. Dubrovskaya’s phrasing in this scena is peerless.

Directed by Roger Hodgman, this is an accomplished and thoughtful interpretation by one of Australia’s very best stage directors of an opera that has been with us now for over 160 years. Matt Scott’s lighting design is gorgeous, appropriately suffusing Richard Roberts’ set with shadows redolent of the darkness, insecurities and foibles of the characters that inhabit the world on stage.