Review: Rigoletto returns – with a striking new look

Photo © Clive Barda
While fantastic singing is to be expected at a production such as this, the talent on stage is gobsmacking
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Written and composed in 1851 by Giuseppe Verdi, the story of Rigoletto stands the test of time. 

Even more compelling to modern audiences is Opera North’s latest rendition, which is touring and currently performing at The Lowry

Directed by Femi Elufowoju Jr., with set and costume design by Rae Smith and Howard Hudson as the lighting designer, this creative team have collaborated to provide a colourful backdrop to a dark story. 

Of course, essential are the composers Garry Walker and Patrick Milne, leading the multiplex orchestra in this phenomenal opera. 

This combination makes for a fabulous night of spectacular theatre, delightful for opera novices, such as me, and equally entertaining for loyal opera audiences. 

The songs, of course, including the renowned La donna e mobile, are performed in Italian, but with screens either side of the stage with brief English translations, allowing for deeper understanding and direction of the song.

Photo © Clive Barda

Rigoletto is divided into three acts. 

Act one introduces the Duke of Mantua (Roman Arndt), hosting a lavish party in his private art gallery.

A womaniser, he considers lovers and wives of his guests as items to conquer, while Rigoletto (Eric Greene), jester to the Duke, mocks the seething men and husbands. 

Sick of the Duke’s behaviour towards his daughter, and weary of Rigoletto’s cruel taunts, the uninvited Count Monterone (Byron Jackson) curses them. 

Terrified of the Count’s curse, Rigoletto retreats to the safehouse where he keeps his daughter, Gilda (Jasmine Habersham) hidden away from the corrupt world. 

The Duke disguises himself and follows Rigoletto, where he sees Gilda but confuses her for Rigoletto’s lover. He swears his love for her, which she returns. 

Guests from the party gather and kidnap Gilda as revenge against Rigoletto’s ridicules, and trick him into helping with the abduction. 

After scene two of act one, a twenty-minute interval takes place.

Photo © Clive Barda

Act two resumes with Rigoletto frantically searching for Gilda, who appears and confesses to her father she is in love with the Duke and feels shame for the assaults he has committed against her. 

Rigoletto becomes enraged and plans for them to leave Mantua.

Act three details the arrangement made between assassin Sparafucile and Rigoletto, the assassination of their shared boss, the Duke of Mantua. 

Using his sister, Maddalena (Alyona Abramova) as bait to entice the Duke falls flat when she, too, falls in love with him.

Maddalena coaxes her brother out of killing him, but having made a deal with Rigoletto, Sparafucile needs to provide a body…

Photo © Clive Barda

While fantastic singing is to be expected at a production such as this, the talent on stage is gobsmacking. 

Velvet smooth voices are a joy to absorb, while emotion heard in the passionate and dangerous scenes, even when sung in Italian, is felt by every audience member.

There is an overriding grand piece of art in act one which covers entirely the back wall of the stage.

The yellows and pinks make a warming and vibrant atmosphere, suitable for the guests, whose costumes sparkle. Extravagant but modern costumes make these age-old characters recognisable in everyday modern life. 

The abductors disguise themselves in bright red jumpsuits and clown masks, which give an unnerving Squid Game/Joker cross over.

The set is plain dark grey, outlined by white strips of brilliant white LEDs, which flash and strike throughout act three to imitate a very convincing effect of lightning, along with thundering sound effects from the orchestra.

There are various outlets used for doors and windows. One fantastically depicts a set of elevator doors, complete with the flashing lights above, indicating which level it is at. 

However, don’t let the grey set fool you.

Photo © Clive Barda

The set is filled with flamboyant props, for example, in Gilda’s hideaway, there is a life size zebra central to the room, accompanied by an extremely upscaled toucan, while she sings and dances between the two in bright blue, flowery pyjamas and pink fluffy slippers.

Opera North’s contemporary take on a classic story is refreshing and pleasing, especially in how it handles some of the outdated themes and behaviours of certain characters, such as the Duke of Mantua being a charismatic ladies’ man. 

It is a long production, however, running nearly two hours and forty minutes (including interval), so the length is something to keep in mind. 

Ultimately, if you are new to opera then this production of Rigoletto is a wonderful way to dip your toe into its musical world. The fabulous styling and set design are unlikely to be seen this way again.

Tickets for Opera North Rigoletto

Rigoletto is being performed by Opera North on Saturday 12th March at The Lowry, which is an accessible performance, audio described by the company.

Tickets are available here, and start at £20. There is also a Touch Tour at 5.45pm and a Pre Show Talk with Opera North about Rigoletto at 6pm. You can register to attend – for free – here.

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