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It is 16 years since Opera North’s last production of Verdi’s classic Rigoletto. One suspects that its latest staging – the operatic debut of acclaimed British-Nigerian director Femi Elufowoju Jr – will still be talked about 16 years from now.
The director has created a bold, innovative and purposeful re-imagining of Verdi’s tale of vicious misogyny and revenge in 16th-century Mantua. Relocated to a distinctly contemporary European city, it casts Count Monterone (performed with immense gravitas by Sir Willard White) as a dignified and justly outraged African elder.
The good Count is disgusted by the failure of the authorities to give any kind of justice to his daughter, who is one of the many women to have been sexually assaulted by the serial molester the Duke of Mantua (played with suitably pernicious alacrity by the excellent Roman Arndt). Scorned by the Duke’s sycophantic courtiers, Count Monterone places a curse upon Rigoletto (American baritone Eric Greene), a black member of the court who has completely bought into the toxic culture in the palace at Mantua.
There is in all of this a potent playing out of the politics, not only of women’s oppression, but also of colonialism and racial injustice. More specifically, director Elufowoju has created an opera that one could imagine coming from the pen of Léopold Senghor, the celebrated poet and cultural theorist who served as the first president of independent Senegal between 1960 and 1980.
For Senghor, the project of European colonialism and slavery in Africa had sought to destroy the essential harmony of the body and soul within African culture (which he called, in French, Négritude, or “blackness”). By contrast with Négritude, he argued, the white, colonialist cultures of Europe were poisoned by their “dualistic” separation of the material world of physical needs and desires from the intellectual and spiritual realm.
Few characters in opera pursue bodily pleasure more singularly, and more obnoxiously, than the narcissistic and abusive Duke of Mantua. In this rendering of Verdi’s opera, the righteously indignant, African Monterone stands as the polar opposite of the white European Duke. Wearing traditional African attire, staff in hand, he pronounces his curse upon the sneering Rigoletto. As he does so, he appears, in his dignity and anger, as the kind of timeless, African figure of whom Senghor would have approved.
This racial dimension enhances the drama of the opera. Here, Rigoletto is not a lowly court jester, but rather a black courtier whose enthusiastic mocking of Monterone’s quest for justice has come back to haunt him.
The expression of themes of both gender and race gives a new, more powerful sense to Rigoletto’s hiding away of his daughter Gilda (who is performed by the superb American soprano Jasmine Habersham). Both belonging and – as a black man – not fully belonging to the Duke’s court, Rigoletto knows only too well the particular dangers that would face Gilda, as a young black woman, if he allowed her to be at liberty in this city.
Verdi’s opera has always been a work in which humour and a gorgeous, musical lightness of touch have contrasted with sinister behaviour. Elufowoju plays with those contrasts beautifully.
At the very outset, the director gestures comically towards the opera’s historical origins as Rigoletto is dressed in an ostentatious, modern jacket by a couple of obsequious 16th-century servants. Designer Rae Smith – whose work is visually startling throughout – gives the incarcerated Gilda the pleasant distractions of a life-sized toy zebra and an inflatable toucan.
Greene and Habersham give exceptional, deeply emotive lead to a universally excellent cast. Their, by turns, mournful and furious duet in Act 2, following Gilda’s rape by the Duke, shudders the soul.
In the third and final act designer Smith excels herself with an extraordinary backstreet set that epitomises physical and moral dereliction. Here it is that Arndt’s brilliantly malignant Duke sings his famous, jaunty aria La donna è mobile.
The carefree good humour of the song clashes violently with both the nefariousness of his intent and the moral decay of his surroundings. It is exemplary, in fact, of a modern Rigoletto that gives remarkable expression to the contrasts inherent in Verdi’s great opera.
Touring until April 1: operanorth.co.uk