Verdi, RIGOLETTO: Gordon Hawkins (Rigoletto), Simone Osborne (Gilda), Bruce Sledge (Duke of Mantua), Matthew Treviño (Sparafucile), Carolyn Sproule (Maddalena) with Willy Miles-Grenzberg, Cameron McPhail, Angus Bell, Marcel d'Entremont, Eden Tremayne, Zachary Read and Francesca Corrado, conducted by Jonathan Darlington, directed by Nancy Hermiston, Queen Elizabeth Theatre, September 26, 2015.

All photos by Tim Matheson

All photos by Tim Matheson

Rigoletto, premiered in 1851, was Verdi’s first undisputed masterpiece, with its gripping theme and compelling protagonist, with music to match. While the theme of the curse powerfully impels the work forward, Rigoletto is essentially an opera of character, and that of really only one: the eponymous hero. Of the other roles, the Duke fulfils his function as careless villain effectively enough, his music expressing his decadent and superficial nature, while Gilda is the innocent that stirs her father’s emotions and motivates his actions, her music delicate. Sparafucile the assassin presents our darkest potential. But everything still focusses on the hunchbacked jester that Verdi conceived of as a character of Shakespearean dimension: complex, contradictory, grotesque -- a tormented, conflicted creature painted large. He stands out the more for appearing with a very small cast in scenes that are for the most part intimate. Nor does he develop, but remains tragically the same in his violent emotional contrasts: loving his daughter but otherwise vicious, hating, and vengeful. This is what makes his descent into catastrophe inevitable.  The music is right on target, matching the moral chiaroscuro of the opera, with the glitter of the court, the glow of the love between father and daughter, and the darkness of dark characters with dark motivations.

Verdi claimed Rigoletto to be revolutionary. While hardly so in any Wagnerian sense, the work certainly broke new ground as far as Italian opera is concerned, with its opening scene of continuous and varied dance measures, its atmospheric duet with Sparafucile, its remarkable quartet in the third act, and its innovatively dramatic use of the orchestra. All this showed Verdi’s willingness to bend convention, allowing dramatic need to determine the music, not the other way around. Therein, of course, lies Verdi’s greatness, as well as in his fascination with the murky byways of human emotion and motivation.

Vancouver Opera delivered a production that conveyed the excitement this work has to offer and left the audience greatly satisfied.  While it had some problems, they were far outweighed by its strengths.  Exemplifying both was its main character, Gordon Hawkins, who proved a rather stiff Rigoletto, his acting sometimes wooden and his singing sometimes lacking colour. Physically, vibrant though his costume was, he was insufficiently grotesque, standing straight, his hump barely visible. While it may have been a relief to see him without the simian shuffle that is an almost mandatory piece of stage business for this character, I want him to look the part of a man tormented by his own deformity. I want his dark side on full display. But this seemed generally missing: even his railing against his fate in Act 2 lacked bite. At the same time, in his more lyrical moments, Mr Hawkins fully delivered the goods, with his firm baritone serving him well. His duets with his daughter were moving and in the heart-breaking conclusion to the opera he rose to tragic heights.

Simone Osborne made a compelling Gilda, with her fine natural acting and touchingly young voice. She did a lovely job of her famous aria ‘caro nome’, acting as the innocent young girl she was, in love for the first time in her life and marvelling at it, and at the young student who had relinquished his name as her father refused to do.  This section was well directed, beginning with Gilda stretched on the floor, luxuriating in her tender meditation. She also sang beautifully in her duets with Mr Hawkins, each seeming to bring out the best in the other.

Bruce Sledge as the Duke was also in fine form, singing with panache and grace of tone, hitting all his notes with ease. His Act 1 duet with Gilda was beautifully sung, as was his aria opening Act 2. And he sang the opera’s famous ‘La donna è mobile’ with just the right amount of swagger. Matthew Treviño as Sparafucile and Carolyn Sproule as Maddalena were excellent as the sinister brother and sister with their humanizing touches; the former with his perverse professional pride and the latter with her weakness for a handsome young nobleman.  Mr Treviño possesses a fine bass voice and sang with authority throughout, including his spot-on low note upon exiting his early encounter with Rigoletto. Ms Sproule displayed a pliable mezzo voice and was convincing as a floozy ‘with a heart’.  Both she and Mr Treviño proved gratifyingly natural actors.

Nonetheless, I found some of the direction ineffective, with several action sequences adding up to little more than cartoonish gestures—Rigoletto’s ‘attempts’ to break into the Duke’s chamber in Act 2, for example (repeated precisely, I’m not sure why), or the kicking of Giovanna during the kidnapping.  At times the blocking was stiff—especially in Act 2, where the chorus members were lined up across the stage seemingly not knowing what to do with themselves. In fact, there was at times a little too much stand and deliver. But then there was that imaginative caro nome.  Or—a deft touch—Rigoletto’s unsure movements in Act 2, as Gilda sang of her betrayal, before coming to her side as comforter.  And Act 3, where the stage movement became fluid and highly effective. The whole opera seemed to take off at this point, partly because the writing becomes so riveting—with that amazing quartet and the trio with the punctuating storm and dramatic knocking.  This was superbly realized on stage, in the blocking and movement and lighting, and the fine acting of the singers, the brother and sister’s natural movements up and down the stairs and within their assigned space. The opera ended so strongly, in fact, that you forgave any shortcomings that might have occurred earlier.

Aiding the production was the fine set from Utah Opera with a period feel and costumes to match.  I particularly liked the transformation at stage right for the sleazy riverside dive of the assassins in Act 3. The playing space was fluid throughout, and aided by good lighting. The orchestra Under Jonathan Darlington played well, with a fairly fast pace and good dynamic contrasts, though it sometimes fought against the voices, the balance not favouring the latter.  

One of the things I like best about going to Vancouver Opera is the enthusiasm of its audience. It is good to see a company appreciated for its achievements, especially in this transition year.  And last night was rightly another in a long line of uplifting responses to a thrilling work satisfyingly delivered.

© Harvey De Roo 2015