At Leeds Grand Theatre, Femi Elufowoju Jr makes his operatic debut with a different take on ‘otherness’.
At the curtain calls after the first night of Opera North’s new Rigoletto, the director went down on his knees in front of the singers, in a striking demonstration of the knowledge that those singers are the most important part of the whole. Much has been written about the production’s casting of some of the principals with black artists. In keeping with the emphasis on singers, the production was dedicated to the memory of Rafael Rojas, the Mexican tenor who died a few days ago and who was a key member of the Opera North family for twenty years.
As ever with this company, the excellence begins with the Chorus, singing and acting with consummate skill, no matter what ‘Leeds on a Saturday night’ antics they are required to perform. It continues with the commanding voice and person of Eric Greene, a Rigoletto of great nobility, although the voice may not have the warmth which might be said to be ideal for the role. Both ‘Pare siamo’ and ‘Cortiggiani! Vil razza dannata’ were sung with powerful tone and forceful emphasis, the strength of the support in the voice going back to Sherrill Milnes rather than Dmitri Hvorostovsky.
He was ideally matched by the gentle Gilda of Jasmine Habersham, in an impressive company debut. The set of her room might suggest a nursery, but this was a young lady who matched her vulnerability with determination, singing with passion in ‘Caro nome’ and succeeding in not making you want to shake her as she vowed to sacrifice her life for a bounder.
That bounder was another notable company debutant in the dapper form of the Russian tenor Roman Arndt, who leched convincingly whilst singing with ardour, tackling the well-known arias with ease and crowning ‘La donna è mobile’ with a creditable high B.
“…the director went down on his knees in front of the singers…”
Willard White was a magnificent Monterone, uttering his fateful curse with stentorian urgency, and at the other end of the moral spectrum, Callum Thorpe’s Sparafucile was convincingly slimy but superbly sung. Alyona Abramova was a richly voiced Maddalena, and Themba Mvula a striking Marullo.
The Orchestra of Opera North played brilliantly for Garry Walker, supporting the singers with taste and sympathy. In fact the pit provided much of the pleasure of the evening, given that the production, whilst being colourful and eye-catching, was not as strong on concept as it was on performance. The Duke’s court was suitably sleazy, but Gilda’s room seemed like too much of an attempt to suggest that her father was keeping her as a baby, or at least a toddler with a liking for Peppa Pig, given the presence of a toucan and a zebra – Percy and Zachary?
The settings for the final scenes were certainly different; surely the Duke would not have slummed it quite so far as to shimmy into a tent? The contortions in the quartet, mostly imposed upon Maddalena, seemed unnecessary given the concentration required by the music – see the Pavarotti / Sutherland version – although once again both singing and playing were of high quality.
A packed house delivered an ecstatic reception, and the evening’s pleasure was enhanced by the ability to enjoy the newly reopened Howard Assembly Rooms, as well as the sense of admiration for what Opera North has achieved despite tremendous odds.
Rigoletto runs until 19 February. Further details can be found here.