Opera review: Rigoletto

Aris Argiris's first night as Rigoletto was ruined by a cold, but Lina Johnson portrayed the tragic Gilda with real stature
Aris Argiris's first night as Rigoletto was ruined by a cold, but Lina Johnson portrayed the tragic Gilda with real stature
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Matthew Richardson’s 2011 production of Verdi’s Rigoletto for Scottish Opera – revived now with new cast, new conductor and, unfortunately, the original uninspired designs of Jon Morrell – alludes to a central theme of women as men’s playthings. And that’s a fair point for an opera that had to undergo heavy censorship in Verdi’s own day, lest its callous, misogynist message offend the accepted moralities of the time.

Theatre Royal, Glasgow ***

So we have the Duke’s male courtiers dancing wildly with inanimate mannequins, later scavenging on their scattered limbs, bits and pieces to be toyed with and discarded at will. But as with all of this production – a messily-conceived update to around the 1940s with shades of film noir – potential points of interest and suggestibility are suffocated by an overriding lack of sustained conviction and psychological clout.

That has its consequences for a cast which, when the going’s good, builds up a head of steam that is thrilling and impassioned, not least in the ensemble numbers that were – together with the bullish male chorus – the opening night’s saving grace. They fight hard collectively to overcome the theatrical shortcomings.

Individually there are golden moments, especially from the two key females. Lina Johnson invests in the role of Gilda a radiant girlish innocence, her portrayal growing massively in stature and impact as her tragedy unfolds. Sioned Gwen Davies plays the cruel siren figure of Maddalena with a disturbing coldness that fuels the hideous chill and horror of the final act.

It took time on Thursday for Adam Smith to fully embrace all that is evil and untouchable in the Duke, but when he did, and the voice opened up with a glorious concoction of venom and dizzy charm, conviction took hold. From the other side of the tracks, David Shipley’s Sparafucile possessed a menacing detachment befitting the cold-hearted contract assassin he is.

It was a tough opening night for Aris Argiris, whose brutish performance as Rigoletto was seriously hampered by a cold. While we naturally sympathised, this led to serious intonation problems at key moments and, to be honest, an unsatisfactory experience for the audience. Could an understudy not have been found?
At least we had the pungency of Verdi’s score to 
balance out the pros and cons of this mixed bag Rigoletto, which conductor Rumon Gamba and the Scottish Opera Orchestra shaped with insistency and bite.

KEN WALTON