Superb Production of Rigoletto from Northern Ireland Opera

03/10/2018

Verdi, Rigoletto: Soloists and Chorus of Northern Ireland (NI) Opera, Ulster Orchestra / Gareth Hancock (conductor), Grand Opera House, Belfast, 30.10.2018. (RB)

Northern ireland Opera’s Rigoletto (c) Patrick Redmond

Cast included:

Rigoletto – Sebastian Catana
Duke of Mantua – Davide Giusti
Gilda – Nadine Koucher
Maddalena – Fleur Barron
Sparafucile – Tamas Berezhansky
Monterone – Simon Thorpe
Marullo – Ben McAteer
Borsa – John Porter
Count Ceprano – David Robertson
Countess Ceprano – Maria McGrann
Giovanna – Ann Jennings

Production:

Director – Walter Sutcliffe
Guest Assistant director – Ela Schmid
Assistant director – Kate Guelke
Stage and Costume designer – Kaspar Glarner
Lighting designer – Wolfgang Goebbel
Chorus master – Tom Seligman

This Gala production of Verdi’s Rigoletto was staged by Northern Ireland Opera in cooperation with the Ópera Nacional de Chile. The international cast was complemented by some of the best singers from Northern Ireland together with the Province’s own home-grown chorus and extras. Davide Giusti and Nadine Koutcher were both prize winners at major international competitions while Gareth Hancock made his Glyndebourne Festival debut earlier this year in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.

Walter Sutcliffe’s production transferred the action from 16th Century Mantua to the present day. He seemed to be following Jonathan Miller’s lead in transforming the Duke and his entourage into Mafiosi-type thugs, although there were also elements of Michael Mayer’s recent ‘Rat Pack’ production in the first act. The opera opened in darkness as we saw Rigoletto standing over a coffin underscoring the opera’s inexorable descent into tragedy. However, the mood changed markedly with the ensuing ballroom scene which was transformed into a disco rave. Many of the duke’s courtiers were wearing brightly coloured suits while the women were wearing glittery evening dresses, helping to create a feeling of excess and decadence.

The sets were fairly basic for the most part although Sutcliffe had an eye to detail and rapid scene changes helped to ensure the action remained fluid. The interior of Rigoletto’s house contained plain furniture but the toys on Gilda’s bed and her girlish attire emphasised Rigoletto’s infantilization of his daughter. The room in the ducal palace was transformed into a penthouse apartment with a well-stocked cocktail bar highlighting the hedonistic excess of the Duke. The production succeeded in drawing attention to important themes within the opera while maintaining dramatic momentum.

I had two reservations about the production. Firstly, it did not seem to anchor the action in any specific time or place, unlike Miller’s production which was set in Little Italy in the 1950s or Mayer’s which is set in 1960s Las Vegas. Some of the costumes seemed to indicate the 1970s but others suggested a later time period and it could have been set anywhere. Secondly, the surtitles for this production were on a small TV screen at the front of the auditorium and it was extremely difficult to see them. It is important that the whole of the audience can see the surtitles clearly to enable them to follow the action.

Sebastian Catana’s performance as Rigoletto was magnificent and deservedly greeted with a standing ovation at the end. Whether he was poking fun at the Duke’s courtiers, anxiously guarding his daughter, conspiring with Sparafucile or obsessing over Monterone’s curse it was impossible to take your eyes off him when he was on stage. His rich, resonant voice filled the auditorium and his Act II aria in particular was heart breaking. He proved to be a consummate ensemble musician and his duet with Koutcher at the end of Act II was electrifying. Koutcher won the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 2015 and having watched her in the various rounds of the competition I thought she would be ideally suited to the role of Gilda. Her transformation from ingénue to tragic heroine was very convincing dramatically and she sang beautifully throughout. ‘Caro nome’ was delivered with mellifluous grace and beauty of tone and increasingly intricate coloratura were exquisitely executed.

Davide Giusti won second prize at last year’s Operalia World Opera Competition where he performed the role of the Duke of Mantua. Giusti’s portrayal of the Duke was suave and calculating and his entreaties to Gilda in Act I almost had an endearing quality. I slightly missed the Devil-may-care attitude that other performers bring to the role but this performance worked well in its own terms.  Giusti does not have a big voice but his intonation was spot on and he produced some beautiful legato singing. I particularly enjoyed his rendition of ‘È il sol dell’anima’ in Act I while Act III’s ‘La donna è mobile’ was a triumph. Tamas Berezhansky provided us with a chilling Sparafucile and his powerful voice and dark vocal timbres were ideally suited to the role. Fleur Barron’s Maddalena was a saucy, manipulative creature and she sang with confidence and ease.

There was a wealth of talent from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in this production including Ben McAteer (Marullo), John Porter (Borsa), Maria McGrann (Countess Ceprano), Ann Jennings (Giovanna), Rebekah Coffey (Page) and Malachy Frame (Usher). All of them acquitted themselves well and I am sure they will move from strength to strength. The Chorus of Northern Ireland Opera also acquitted themselves well and their rendition of ‘Scorrendo uniti’ in Act II received a well-deserved round of applause from the audience.

Gareth Hancock did a superb job ensuring the cast, chorus and orchestra remained on track. The Ulster Orchestra injected the opening prelude with its brass fanfares and ominous drumrolls with dread while the ensuing party music was lively and spirited and full of joie de vivre. Hancock ensured an excellent balance between the singers and instrumentalists throughout and he responded flexibly to the needs of the singers. The Ulster Orchestra produced some vivid tone painting in the party scenes, the surreptitious meetings and in Act III’s storm scene while Hancock’s pacing of the material was first rate.

Overall, this was a superb production from Northern Ireland Opera and bravo to Sebastian Catana for giving us such a wonderful Rigoletto.

Robert Beattie           

For more about Northern Ireland Opera click here.

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