Verdi’s Rigoletto is a classic, and deservedly so. The story was based on a Victor Hugo play, adapted somewhat to avoid censorship. Hugo, by all accounts, was not at all happy that his play was being plagiarised (and by an Italian!) until he attended and was amazed by a performance. Musically it was rather revolutionary, being more a number of duets than conventional arias. The standout solo, “La donna è mobile”, was such a hit after the premiere that it was sung on the streets, and more recently it’s easily recognisable in computer games, films, and football chants. A moving tragedy, and a subtlely caustic social commentary, Rigoletto is a good choice for any company.
Eternity Opera’s mission is to make opera accessible to everyone, and they do this by staging it in smaller, cheaper venues. Hannah Playhouse is a versatile space to work in despite its size. It was surprising, then, that the set was so minimal – a couple of concrete walls, doorways, a curtain. The chamber orchestra set into the stage at one side looked a little cramped, but seemed cheerful.
I assumed that the bare set would be complemented by lush costume, or that it would metamorphose through clever prop use. That never eventuated; the chorus for the most part wore a motley assortment of hooded cloaks and masks, the leads wore nothing particularly special. The only notable costume was that of Rigoletto, who changed from clownish short red trousers and suspenders in the first half to drab browns and greys in the second to reflect the character’s journey. There was also some rather nice floor lighting, casting the players’ shadows onto the walls dramatically at appropriate points. Still, I felt the production was visually wanting. Perhaps the design was limited by budget.
Matthew Ross directed the orchestra decisively, and they did a pretty good job of keeping up. A smaller space can be dynamically problematic for an ensemble, as everything needs to be scaled down. There may have been a wobble or two from the horns in the quietest moments, but for the most part, they responded well to the additional challenge.
The chorus was solid and clear, although they could have had more to play with in the way of props or direction – they mostly stood around, with a little awkward dancing in the opening scene. Orene Tai stood out as Count Marullo, a small part but an impressive presence, and the murderous brother/sister duo of Robert Lindsay and Jess Segal were lovely to watch and hear. Lindsay, especially, I hope to hear more of – the part of Sparafucile doesn’t offer much opportunity to shine vocally, but his resonant bass voice should promise a bright future. Segal played Maddalena brilliantly, although she was a little quiet when singing ensemble.
Boyd Owen as the Duke was excellent. His mellifluous tenor was exactly what the character needed and his rendition of “La donna è mobile”, if a little awkward in the English translation, was playful and snarky. He clearly was enjoying a great part and he did a damn good job.
Hannah Catrin-Jones, though, as Gilda, had a rougher time. The part is pretty two-dimensional, as Gilda’s purpose is basically to waft limply about as the over-protected virgin daughter of Rigoletto, but there are opportunities to show real courage and defiance. Sadly, those choices weren’t made in this production, and I can’t lay that blame on Catrin-Jones. Her soprano is round and clear, and while some of the higher notes may have been a reach in the first half, she warmed up in the second.
The star, without a doubt, was James Clayton. He’s just a genuine delight to watch, especially in such a rich character. He’s a brilliant physical actor, and his Rigoletto was easy to like, and even easier to pity, as what little he had and everything he loved was destroyed by his own jealous machinations. Clayton’s beautiful baritone delivery is just as thoughtful as his characterisation, and he’s not afraid to play with it to add depth to the part. He made the whole production for me.
I’ve heard a rumour that Eternity are finishing up, and I think that’s a real shame. Whether they achieve their goal of bringing opera to a wider demographic or not, they do create opportunities for talented singers who might otherwise not move outside of the chorus or get to play the most substantial parts. I hope they can continue to do that.