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08 July, 2014

Rousing new Rigoletto in Sydney but singers overworked.

Rigoletto, Sydney Opera House, Thursday 26 June 2014
Rigoletto - Giorgio Caoduro
Gilda - Emma Matthews
Duke - Gianluca Terranova
Maddalena - Sian Pendry
Giovanna - Domenica Matthews
Sparafucile - David Parkin
Monterone - Gennadi Dubinski
Conductor - Renato Palumbo
Director - Roger Hodgman
Set and costumes - Richard Roberts
Lighting - Matt Scott
Dear Colleagues,
This performance occurred in the wake of huge publicity over the sacking of the seasons Desdemona Tamar Iveri for appalling homophobic comments on her internet page.  A form of facebook fission developed culminating in the company terminating the sopranos contract.  One only hopes that she was not paid out.  As with politicians and other professionals ones past comments can become serious baggage, especially when they reveal serious ignorance, prejudice or malice.  The singer claimed that the comments were made by her much younger husband who is a devout Christian (which does not say much for his form of Christianity).  Whether his or hers, the harbouring of such sour and unacceptable views about gay people is inconsistent with a career in opera (or any other calling I would have thought, including or especially the priesthood). 
It seems extraordinary that despite Rigoletto being very popular and following an opera “drought” of several months, that there were still empty seats in all reserves for this splendid opening night.  And price would not seem to be a factor as there were dozens of empty D reserves seats valued at less than $50 each - most with slightly restricted views, but ideal for students or first-timers.  However, this is the state of affairs in many opera houses across the world and must be due to several factors, including a general economic down-turn.  Several long-running opera companies have gone backwards of late (NYCO, San Diego, for instance).
Emma Matthews played Gilda, as in 2010.  While she is a wonderful artist, this is not her ideal role which requires more vocal heft in my view.  Yet she performed creditably under a conductor who made serious demands regarding tempo and a direction which required her to be very physical. 
Mr Terranova as the Duke of Mantua started out strongly with Questa o quella which sounded youthful and frivolous, as befits its words.  The tenors stocky frame and facial expressiveness are reminiscent of representations of the young Caruso with an almost square head on top of a square upper body.  He sang a fine Ella mi fu rapita but then, like most tenors, he omitted the (unwritten) high note in the cabaletta Possente amor mi chiama.  His La donna e mobile was superb. 
Mr Caoduro has a unique baritone voice, almost with a tenor quality and a wide beat.  He uses every traditional dramatic device and a few new ones to present a perfect wronged father and the victim of the plots curse. 
As deliverer of that curse the Monterone of Gennadi Dubiniski was under-powered and woolly.  He had an uneven gravel-like quality to his voice and I wonder why the opera company use him so often.  By contrast Mr Parkin sang Sparafucile brilliantly with one of his lowest notes close to the Guinness Book of Records for length.  Other supporting roles and the chorus were all excellent. 
The new production is based on two adjacent stage revolves.  These move the action from palace to dingy back lane to the jesters garden allowing seamless scene changes.  One had the feeling that the director ordered one or two too many cranks of the revolves yet the concept works well overall. 
There was a clever and almost revolutionary lighting design which had everything from stroboscopic flashes for the thunder storm to audio-coordinated highlight-haze spotlighting in the finale.  The projection of an enlarged shadow for Rigoletto in the final act was brilliant and highly effective in amplifying the text in which he says that killing the duke has made him feel strong and important for once in his life. 
The set was mostly black glossy mock-marble walls while the chorus were all dressed in shades of bright red.  The initial house curtain was black highlighted with crimson to great effect.  It still surprises me when directors try to put singers on stage during introductory orchestral and have them mime out bits and pieces from the opera.  The original collaborators went to some trouble to present a dramatic work which has stood the test of time, starting the action at a certain point.  I find it is not only inane and empty but also an insult to the orchestra which gets few enough chances to shine and take the limelight in opera.  Another bad habit of this company is to join acts together to save money on overtime.  This time we had the ludicrous situation dramatically where Rigoletto says to his daughter “Has time not made you weary of him” only minutes after she has exited the Dukes bedroom in Act II.  It also puts extraordinary vocal demands on an already demanding work.  The singers unions (if such exist) should be crying foul or even suing in my view, especially for the company abandoning the practice of two rest days between major roles. 
Maestro Renato Palumbo took many rubato liberties but each was done with purpose and these contrasted with long sections of strict time, sometimes particularly slow, other times fast.  He certain put his stamp on the score with the fastest Corteggiani, vil razza I have ever heard and yet other pieces were slow.  I think that the off-stage band in Act I may have been dispensed with - these are tough times and as long as it was not replaced with a recording I think we should understand.  The orchestra received a huge and well deserved ovation. 
All in all a marvellous addition to the companys repertoire and worth a visit for anyone in Sydney.  Also worthy of telecasting and one hopes this is in the works. 
Comments by Andrew Byrne ..