The big idea in Femi Elufowoju Jr’s reading of Rigoletto for Opera North is so powerful and so current and at the same time so true to the artistic force of Verdi’s setting of Victor Hugo that it is somehow surprising that it has taken until now for someone to put it on the stage.
Elufowoju Jr’s production rediscovers the otherness of Rigoletto and his daughter Gilda for the 21st century. In Hugo and Verdi, the title role is a 16th-century hunchback court jester, who keeps his daughter hidden away to protect her from philandering aristocrats. Here, however, Rigoletto’s otherness is as a black man with a vulnerable daughter existing on the margins of an entitled bunch of rich white party animals who cannot be trusted around young women. Sound familiar? The political topicality is never explicitly stated, but it gives the idea searing extra credibility.
Believe me, this new take on Rigoletto really works. It does so, in the main, because of the two black artists – Eric Greene as Rigoletto and Jasmine Habersham as Gilda – who don’t just inhabit their demanding roles vocally, Habersham in particular, but who constantly convey how everything in their lives is precarious, with danger (and excitement) lurking literally just outside the door. All this is elevated by the luxury casting of Willard White as Count Monterone, dressed in a shining agbada, who curses the corrupt court, and – crucially for the drama that unfolds – curses Rigoletto’s collusive involvement with it.
It is important to say that not everything about this conception of Verdi’s opera comes off. The revelatory impulse of this production sometimes struggles to make its point. There is some overly fussy stagecraft. A pantomime setting, in which an infantilised Gilda, guarded by a pistol-packing chaperone, sleeps on a stuffed zebra exemplifies the show’s occasional overstatement. And the final act confirms the rule that sticking a car on the stage is generally more hindrance than help.
Overall, though, Opera North achieves its customarily high musical standards. Garry Walker conducts very idiomatically, and the wind writing, in which Verdi achieved such breakthroughs, is particularly well played. Roman Arndt is a stylish Duke of Mantua, delivering his big numbers reliably, and Callum Thorpe a chillingly excellent Sparafucile. Greene is a light-voiced Rigoletto, and his Italian diction could do with more rasp, but the warmth of his singing is beguiling. It’s Habersham, though, who provides most of the special moments, not just in her big scenes but in the ensembles that are such a notable feature of this opera.
Rigoletto is at Grand theatre, Leeds, until 19 February, then touring until 1 April.