Opera review: Rigoletto, Sydney Opera House

Go see it for the music, not the reprehensible, misogynistic storyline.

Elijah Moshinsky’s acclaimed production of Rigoletto returns to the Opera House this June in a revival directed by Shane Placentino, as the iconic works of painter John Olsen swirl across the iconic sails above, part of the Vivid festival of light.  

The opera is generally acclaimed to be one of Verdi’s master works, perhaps even the best, and even opera novices will certainly have heard its best-known aria ‘La donna è mobile’ in everything from concerts to pasta advertising. 

And that popularity is one of the reasons you should probably ensure that this production is on your list of opera must-sees. Rigoletto was a triumph when it premiered in Venice in 1851 and has remained in the top 10 most popular operas to this day. Based on a play by Victor Hugo, and full of scandalous behaviour, this sordid tale barely made it past the censors of the time and remains a tragic indictment of the behaviour of privileged powerful men. 

The staging designed by Michael Yeargan is spectacular, with a giant revolving doll’s house, echoing the role of women at the time the opera was written, as merely playthings for men. And there is an evil seducing duke, a virtuous young maiden, several not so virtuous ladies, a slew of vile courtiers and a sharp-tongued hunchback father in the title role.

In a work as famous as this there isn’t much point dwelling on the plot, but as you’d expect the evil duke has his way, the ladies are corruptible, the courtiers behave reprehensibly, the maiden sacrifices herself and the father is distraught. All in the name of love. Yes, this oversimplifies the plot, but if it wasn’t for the music, this tale of misogyny, deceit and revenge would have no doubt been cancelled long ago.

One of the last stalwarts against political correctness, opera still allows long dead social constructs to continue – all in support of the glorious music. And there appeared few audience members who hadn’t generously surpassed their half-century milestone, so it appears that the fading relevance of these stories, along with the ticket price, may be taking a toll. And that’s a pity, because the virtuosity of these performers, soaring unamplified through the theatre, from visually arresting staging, is quite something to behold.

Lucky then that the sweeping music is presented with breathtaking skill, led masterfully by conductor Renato Palumbo, and gorgeously delivered by this cast and orchestra. Ernesto Petti delivers a solid performance in the title role and Atalla Ayan is a suitably slimy Duke. Roberto Scandiuzzi gives us a confident and menacing Sparafucile and Sian Sharp’s Maddalena is surprisingly delicate and touching. But it is Stacey Alleaume as Gilda who illuminates the stage with her soaring soprano notes, not only in her solos, but when her voice is floating like heaven above the duets and quartets.

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Dressing as a 50s teenager makes it a stretch to reach the maturity of the woman she needs to become, but she triumphs. Given the misogyny of the story, the appropriately all male chorus delivers its usual high standard of vocals and questionable level of acting skills. 

If opera is your thing, this production is impressive and not to be missed. If you want to complete your musical education, then Rigoletto should definitely be on your bucket list. And there are subtitles if you want to know what’s going on.  

Opera Australia
Music: Giuseppe Verdi
Sydney Opera House
Libretto: Francesco Maria Piave
Original Director: Elijah Moshinsky
Revival Director: Shane Placentino
Conductor: Renato Palumbo
Set and Costume design: Michael Yeargen
Lighting Design: Robert Bryan
Cast: Ernesto Petti, Atalla Ayan, Stacey Alleaume, David Parkin, Roberto Scandiuzzi, Sian Sharp, Luke Gabbedy, Virgilio Marino, Anthony Mackey, Ruth Strutt, Jennifer Page, Nathan Lay
Tickets: $81 – $370
Rigoletto will be performed until 26 June 2023.

Dennis Clements is a NIDA Acting graduate and has a BA focused on Literature, Theatre and Journalism. He won the Theatre prize in his graduation year from Curtin University in WA. He has extensive leading role performance credits in both professional and community based companies, and has directed numerous productions for Bankstown Theatre Company and Ashfield Musical society. He is a registered Marriage Celebrant if you want to get hitched, and has also reviewed for Australian Stage online theatre magazine for several years.