Scottish Opera brought Verdi’s classic “Rigoletto” to The Festival Theatre Edinburgh stage tonight for the start of their Edinburgh run (Fri 09 Nov to Sat 17 Nov), and without any doubt, Scottish Opera have another very stylish success to add to their long list of successes.
Rigoletto is such a famous and well-loved opera with some of the best known music and songs in Opera (“La donna è mobile” and “Caro nome” being only two of them) that it needs no real introduction here. What Scottish Opera have done here with this revival of the Matthew Richardson (Director and Jon Morrell (Designer) production is to give us a stripped down to the basics vision of this classic that focuses on the main characters as people while at the same time adding some surreal touches to their world.
All great operas need at their very core a solid story of real passions, emotions and tragedy. Yes, the music and the songs play an obviously important role here, but for me if you cannot strip away music and songs and still have a powerful story underneath everything, then there is nothing upon which to build anything else. Rigoletto with or without music and song is a story of human passions and failings that simply pull an audience into its world.
In the wrong hands, Rigoletto can become nothing more than a twisted caricature of a human being both inside and out but, in the right hands, something special can happen, and Aris Argiris with his portrayal of Rigoletto is certainly the right hands here. Powerful and wonderfully interpretive vocals may be the most obvious elements of Aris Argiris’ performance here tonight, but the real pleasure is watching how he captures the inner demons that make up the psyche of Rigoletto. This is Rigoletto brought to life as a human being and not, as so often can happen, an operatic cartoon. Here we can relate with a man driven to the point of insanity to be constantly funny on demand around people that he despises, but also feel very uncomfortable with the insanely over protective attitude he has towards his daughter and the many problems that this control is causing her in her life. This Rigoletto has a darkness to him, something very unsettling just below the surface, and these two elements are also weaving their way throughout the larger story here. A mixture of careful costume design, moving the time period forward to a more contemporary one, stripped back but atmospheric sets and very good use of lighting and colour palletes truly bring everything to a dark production here. The shadows, particularly Rigoletto’s, are a very powerful part of the classic “film noir” visual feel here.
Lina Johnson as Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda gives some outstanding performances here both vocally and dramatically, and it is her careful portrayal of a young woman isolated from almost all human contact by her father’s insane protective jealousy that gives this Gilda real life and human qualities. This is a young woman kept under lock and key and only allowed out on Sundays to go to church - with of course a guardian beside her. Gilda is in a completely isolated world and does not even know her father’s name. This fragility and confusion is perfectly portrayed by Lina Johnson in the performance of her songs.
Completing our tragic triangle is the Duke of Mantua played by Adam Smith and, as well as a solid performance of perhaps the best known work from this production, “La donna è mobile”, Adam Smith gives us a fine performance as the Duke that is everything in a man that Rigoletto has come to hate - wealth, power, arrogance, and of course, almost unnatural good looks. All of these attributes are used to his advantage to get whatever he wants from any man or woman that crosses his path.
That very European, art-house “film noir” feel to this production is evident in the portrayals by murderer for hire Sparafucile (David Shipley) and his accomplice in many crimes, his sister Maddalena (Sioned Gwen Davies). A special mention needs to be given here to Stephen Gadd for his performance as Count Monterone. In a bitter twist of fate, Rigoletto comes to understand himself, only far too late, the passions of a father wanting to obtain justice for wrongs done to his daughter’s honour. It is of course Count Monterone’s curse that our whole story now starts to revolve around too.
There are many visual surprises here in this production. This is very much a story of “what lies behind the locked door”, and there are some really unexpected moments behind some of these doors where creative innovation gives some welcome twists to a very old story. I have no intention of telling you about these, go and enjoy the surprises first hand at a performance.
Of course, Verdi’s wonderful music and a fine performance of it by The Orchestra of Scottish Opera conducted tonight by Rumon Gamba needs special mention here too.
Review by Tom King