Review: Rigoletto, Richmond Theatre

Review written by guest blogger Rob Smith.

‘To wake the soul by tender strokes of art’ – reads the legend above the stage at Richmond Theatre, where the Opera Novella company’s production of Rigoletto was staged on August 4. There are few ‘tender strokes of art’ in the squalid tale of the notoriously-abused hunchback Rigoletto and his daughter’s ravishment by the Duke of Mantua and murder by a hired cutthroat; the artistry resides, rather, in Verdi’s music.

In this production the music is provided by a small (and small-sounding) chamber ensemble, a spartan musical arrangement which appropriately matches the bare staging, with its predominance of black and white. The prevailing colourlessness is relieved by incisive costume design from Patsy Fraser, who lends an air of sordid luxury to the courtiers’ costumes with a dash of gold relief, and clothes Maddalena in an eye-catching rich red which breaks through the production’s ordinary colour palette, emphasising both the character’s seductiveness and her crucial role in the bloody climax.

Although director Howard Guard is candid in his programme notes about his version’s ‘smallest of budgets’, the stripped-down approach actually works well artistically, placing the focus firmly on the characters. Guard may be overly harsh to Rigoletto when he describes the plot as ‘almost impossible’ – after all, every character has a believable motivation, and their courses of action have much internal logic, which Guard and his performers bring out to great effect. Here, the Duke is lively and charming enough to make Gilda’s continuing attachment to him after he rapes her psychologically convincing for the sheltered girl, and to make Maddalena’s sudden infatuation with him acceptable.

The assassin Sparafucile and his sister Maddalena are so well depicted in a close, if sometimes frustrating working relationship that his decision to spare the Duke for her sake, and murder the first stranger they encounter instead, seems a very natural course of desperate expediency. Best of all, two bright splashes of blood against the black-and-white backgrounds effectively tie together the aftermath of Gilda’s rape with the aftermath of her stabbing, inviting the audience to reflect on how simply and directly one leads to the other,  despite the intervening complications of the plot.

The production is blessed with a very impressive cast, who, at the performance I attended, were not even fazed by a member of staff walking onstage just after La Donna è Mobile to announce an unscheduled interval (no explanation was ever given and we resumed ten minutes later). Andrew Bain steals the show as a sleazy and selfish but ever-so-likeable Duke, playing a challenging role with energy and the appearance of ease. Simon Lobelson is an acceptably versatile Rigoletto, capturing the character’s bitterness and fatherly tenderness, although the savage exaltation of victory, when Rigoletto believes the Duke dead, eludes him.

Although technically very impressive, Amanda Forbes is perhaps too operatic for her own good in the role of Gilda: as this production convincingly shows, operatic grandeur is rather unsuited to the mean and petty tragedy of Rigoletto and his house.  But she does very well to convey Gilda’s anguish, her post-traumatic inability to accept the Duke’s betrayal, and the combination of guilt and self-deluding love which propels her into a ‘redemptive’ act of suicidal sacrifice.

With a translation of Piave’s libretto that does not overreach itself, this is an accessible production of Rigoletto despite the low-budget starkness, and it can be recommended on the strength of its performances and clear artistic vision. My soul was indeed woken, and not even a glass of the dreadful Merlot I stupidly bought in the interval could quite put it to sleep again! Four out of five.

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