We are living in strange times. For the first time in more than 40 years of opera-going, I was about to hear a national anthem.
I was at The Lowry for Opera North’s new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto when it was announced that the anthem of Ukraine would be played before the curtain. As the entire audience stood as one and the orchestra belted out a rousing rendition, it was a moving and timely reminder that opera has its place but we live in a dangerous world.
In all my years of opera-going, I remained a Rigoletto virgin. So I was unsure what to expect other than my love of a good slice of Verdi. Suffice to say, I was not disappointed. The performance was quite simply outstanding.
To the plot. Rigoletto (Eric Greene) is the zealous father of Gildas (Jasmine Habersham) whom he keeps hidden from society for fear that she will be seduced. She is pursued by local lothario the Duke of Mantua (Roman Arendt) for whom she falls. When Rigoletto discovers that his daughter has been compromised by the Duke, he hires an assassin, Sparafucile (Callum Thorpe) to kill the nobleman. But Rigoletto and the Duke have been cursed by Monterone (Sir Willard White) whose own daughter has been seduced by the Duke. In true opera style, Gilda is mistakenly killed by Sparafucile, thus fulfilling the curse and ruining Rigoletto. Classic Verdi.
The staging, lighting and set design by Rae Smith, Howard Hudson and Jacob Taylor are stunning. The framing of the set by LED neon, the colour palette of the lighting, and the modern costumes enhance the effects of the tragic narrative. And the arrival of pizzas by bike lends a knowing comic touch. Pure genius. Add to that a series of outstanding performances by everyone, from the chorus to the leads, and you have an opera that I will never forget.
It was a privilege to finally see Sir Willard, although he was sadly underused in the role of Monterone. The real ‘wow’ of the evening went to Greene as Rigoletto and Habersham as Gilda, two of the best singers I have ever seen on an opera stage. The controlled coloratura of Caro nome (‘sweet name that made my heart’) sung by Gilda in the first act was note-perfect and enough to make a grown man cry.
Habersham was making her Opera North debut and I hope to see her again as she is a star in the making. Meanwhile, Greene has a great presence and a voice to match as well as authority and tenderness. He also displays the vulnerability that comes from being an overprotective parent that leads, in the end, to tragedy.
On the way home, I felt thankful that I am able to see great opera, and grateful to Opera North for reminding me of the plight of the people of Ukraine.
By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent