Lean and immediate tragedy: Verdi’s Rigoletto, Regents Opera

An old man, hunched and stooping, clambers onto a stage. With an air of exhausted bitterness, he smears white paint onto his face, dons a jester’s horned cap, picks up his stick of bells: Rigoletto is ready for another day of work.

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Quentin Hayes (Rigoletto) [Photography: Mike Dewis]

However, this day at the Duke of Mantua’s court will end in a savage curse; and the next, in gruesome disaster. Director Nicholas Heath’s production of Verdi’s classic tragedy for Regents Opera (now touring, also, with sister company Opera A La Carte) sets Rigoletto in the Victorian era of its own genesis, with feudal power structures strongly felt, male rivalries bristlingly aggressive, and chastity an open game. Blessed with a magnificent Duke and superb Gilda, with fine singing across the rest of cast, this lean, yet deeply musical production is a chance to see Rigoletto in untrammelled intimacy.

Heath uses a small stage to memorable effect. Our first scene is a busy Masked Ball scene full of exotically-costumed characters (with guests disguised as animals from bears to peacocks), yet he goes on to foster a palpable sense of isolation in both Gilda’s secluded cottage and the evil inn of the final catastrophe. A pared-down set of a few simple props on a raised stage, designed for performance in the round, gives the singers plenty of scope for movement, delivering to all four walls by turns (so, if one aria isn’t pointed at you, don’t worry; the next one probably will be). Ben Woodward conducts Kevin Ferguson’s arrangement of Verdi’s score from the piano, enriched here and there by flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon: while the breadth of an orchestra is gone, clarity and delicacy are to the fore in a clear, penetrating and moving account.

Above all, the singing is exceptional. Alberto Sousa’s Duke is the absolute highlight: “Questo o quella” came across with utterly fresh phrasing, as if a stream of thought occurring to him in that very moment, an impression testament to Sousa’s masterful control of his music. “La donna è mobile” sparkled with mischievous energy; Sousa is a talented actor, able to conjure both the playful and despotic sides of the Duke, pitching him nicely between self-absorbtion, reckless hedonism and active malevolence towards those who fall from his favour. As he seduces Gilda, we almost feel the Duke has seduced himself with his idea of the poor student lover, Gualtier Maldè; yet, by the time he meets Maddalena in the Inn, we suspect he can barely remember his passing passion for Gilda, as his ravenous quest for pleasure goads him ever onwards. If you need just one reason to see this production, it is Sousa.

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Alberto Sousa (the Duke of Mantua, here disguised as Gualtier Maldè); Francesca Matta (Gilda). [Photography: Mike Dewis]

However, Francesca Matta’s superb Gilda is a worthy counterpart to Sousa’s Duke, also sung and acted with exceptional poise and grace, and beautifully phrased in her perfect Italian. Well up to the significant vocal challenge of Gilda, Matta can convey the purity and integrity of Verdi’s tragic heroine, while also cleverly allowing Gilda moments of girlish animation which win an audience’s affection hands down. During a fabulous “Caro nome”, Gilda’s electric surge of excitement after meeting ‘Gualtier Maldè’ could not fail to touch us, while her final self-sacrifice for the libertine Duke felt as desperate as it was tragically pointless, a true punishment for her father’s arrogant mistreatment of others.

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Simon Grange (Sparafucile). [Photography: Mike Dewis]

Simon Grange’s luxurious bass range makes for a superb Sparafucile, richly voiced and nicely acted; as ever, the assassin isn’t Verdi’s most mysterious role, but Heath introduces hints of incest between Grange and Mae Heydorn, a seriously sultry and vocally sophisticated Maddalena (doubling her with a nicely-judged Countess Ceprano), to explain how Sparafucile is controlled by his wanton sister.

Amongst all these charismatic performances, Quentin Hayes’ often emotionally subdued Rigoletto doesn’t always occupy centre stage, thus allowing the Duke’s story to take our attention. Hayes begins and ends his role with nicely evocative expression and gesture, first demeaned and finally defeated, but never quite hits the depths of Rigoletto’s cruelty or vulnerability to take us on his own tragic journey in the middle. I kept finding myself remembering what other Rigolettos had done at this point, in the absence of any gritty detailing from Hayes; nevertheless, his clean baritone covers the score with calm and pleasant efficiency, although there were moments when I badly wanted to confiscate his incessantly jangling jester’s bells, which got distracting. However, it’s an entirely competent performance, and Katie Grosset does a good job of bolstering Hayes’ Rigoletto from the side with her repressed, fearful and well-sung Giovanna, while Andrew Mayor’s imposingly military Count Monterone curses him with noble vigour. The scheming courtiers Marullo (Peter Brooke) and Borsa (James Liu) strike a nice note of disdainful nastiness, while Gerard Delrez supports them as a scowling, sonorous Count Ceprano.

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Alberto Sousa (the Duke of Mantua). [Photography: Mike Dewis]

Sung in Italian without surtitles, this is a strikingly immediate rendition of Rigoletto from a very strong team; whether you are seeing it for the first, or fiftieth time, it offers much to enjoy, notice, and ponder. Above all, Sousa’s stratospheric command of the Duke is a joy to witness.

Reviewed at St Cyprian’s Church, NW1 on 25 May 2017

Touring until 25 June 2017: find tickets here

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