Hunchback jester schemes to bring down Duke by Richard Jones


A look at Opera Australia’s Rigoletto

I’ve seen a few operatic performances over the years but never one where the lead character is performed by a Mongolian.

But such is the case with the latest opus from Opera Australia where the lead character, the hunchback and jester Rigoletto, is performed by Amartuvshin Enkhbat. And as well Rigoletto’s master the Duke of Mantua is played by an Armenian: Liparit Averisyan.

When you consider the entire cast sing Verdi’s masterpiece in Italian (with sub-titles flashing on the ceiling screen above the orchestra pit) it’s an astonishing feat from all concerned. Just as astonishing are the sets designed for Melbourne’s State Theatre with the interior of the Duke’s palace, the hired assassin Sparafucile’s sleazy inn and the interior of Rigoletto’s own home where his daughter Gilda (Stacey Alleaume) is under protective custody, almost house arrest – they’re all superb.

Baritone Enkhbat sets the scene right from the beginning. He’s wearing his jester’s mask at the Duke’s ball and although hampered by his double walking stick gait taunts one of the Duke’s senior courtiers.

This is Count Ceprano and when he falls a-foul of the Duke, courtesy of Rigoletto’s mocking, he curses both the Duke and his court jester as he’s led off to prison. Terrified that the curse will strike him down Rigoletto scurries – or rather, limps – home to his daughter Gilda. En route he meets innkeeper and hired killer Sparafucile (a great bass role sung by Robert Scandiuzzi) and they come to an arrangement. Rigoletto reflects both men are paid to destroy others: the court jester with words and Sparafucile with daggers.

After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing inside the house between Rigoletto, Gilda and their housekeeper-maid the disguised Duke (he’s wearing just a jacket and trousers) is let in by the maid. Hiding upstairs he’s amazed to discover that the young woman he’s been pursuing is the hunchback’s daughter. The Duke confesses his love for Gilda and also tells her he’s a student. But the imprisoned count’s friends have discovered the house and blindfold the hunchback convincing him they’re kidnapping Ceprano’s wife.

Verdi has a delicious twist here. Rigoletto actually assists in the capture of his own daughter.

Rigoletto might be unaware of the twist but the Duke isn’t. Once he’s told his men have captured Rigoletto’s ‘lover’ he immediately realises the ‘lover’ must be Gilda – and his men have brought her back to his palace. The jester tries to search the palace but he’s hampered by his affliction. Fortunately Gilda finds him and after she unburdens herself Rigoletto realises that the Duke has raped his daughter.

So the final scenes are set. Off we go to Sparafucile’s inn where the assassin is paid to kill the Duke.

Of course the Duke, again attired in civvies, is this time already there and pursuing another love interest: Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena (Sian Sharp). Rigoletto and Gilda (dressed as a man) arrive outside the inn where, inside, Maddalena suggests her brother kill the hunchback instead.

Maddalena has fallen for the Duke – in a conveniently shortened time span – but the assassin still isn’t convinced. Eventually Sparafucile proposes a compromise with his sister. If a stranger calls into the inn before midnight he’ll kill him instead of the Duke.

And we enjoyed a little bit of off-stage drama as well. Just as the conductor was about to take his place in the orchestra pit, 90-year-old composer George Dreyfus rose from his front row seat. He’s been mightily unhappy that although Opera Australia commissioned his 1970 work The Gilt-Edged Kid it’s never been performed. With lights dimmed for the opening night start George couldn’t read his two-page screed. And his loud hailer wasn’t working – we could see the red light flashing from our seats in the middle of the stalls area. Gradually, and quite gently, the nonagenarian was coaxed towards the side front doors and apparently police took him out of the front entrance and to hospital for observation. George’s antics delayed the start of Rigoletto by about 20 minutes. But the front row patrons who’d been transferred to the side aisle could at least move back to their allotted seats before the orchestra started up.



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