WHEN Giuseppe Verdi first staged his opera Rigoletto in 1851, he set it in the 16th century Italian court of the villainous Duke of Mantua. But for the NBR New Zealand Opera production, which opens in Wellington on Saturday, the setting is about as contemporary as it can get. This Rigoletto, one of the world's best-loved operas, is set in Italy today. The fact that many of the machinations involving Italy's recent former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi are almost operatic isn't lost on Rigoletto director Lindy Hume.
"It's Berlusconi's Italy but it's not actually Berlusconi's," she says. "You will recognise a world that is something that we can identify with. There's not an absolute aping but there's a few little moments. The duke didn't do the things that Berlusconi did and Berlusconi didn't do the things the duke did. But it's the sense of someone else who enjoyed unbridled power and such licence to be so unashamedly misogynist and cheeky and naughty and outrageous."
During rehearsals in Wellington, the cast have been reminded of the parallels. Acclaimed Australian baritone Warwick Fyfe, who plays the title role, says their rehearsal room has been festooned with articles from the internet and from newspapers which he describes as Berlusconi's "wall of shame".
"[It's] all these articles, so in spare moments people are going up and reading it and saying, 'Did he do that?'," he says.
"We call it the 'gift that keeps on giving'," says Hume "because he's currently on trial."
But preparing to again play Rigoletto hasn't been an arduous trial for Fyfe, who performed in Wellington last year in the "Cav & Pag" double bill, Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci.
"I'm just really glad to revisit the role and treat it like a new role again," says Fyfe, who played Rigoletto for Opera Australia.
"It's not a change for change's sake. It really is going back to the source material the music and the words and seeing what's really being said. It's been really refreshing and there have been bits of the score that I've found sadistically hard to sing they are still hard but I'm more in command and on top of it. It's like someone has given a lot more tubes of paint."
Fyfe says it's also been a relief because in the past he has noticed a pattern when he returns to an opera role that he has performed before. "There is a sort of very tired feeling that one gets when one initially feels oneself going back into the same modes. Even when I had some coaching with the conductor [Wyn Davies] in Australia a few months ago, I found myself physicalising, as I was singing, in a way that related exclusively to the [previous] production that I knew really well.
"I just said, 'Stop it'. Literally from the first rehearsal that pretty much crumbled away."
Newcomers to opera are not only entranced by Verdi's music for Rigoletto, but his gripping story. The Duke of Mantua (tenor Rafael Rojas) is having an affair with a young girl, Gilda (soprano Emma Pearson), but doesn't realise until two-thirds of the way through the opera that she's the daughter of his hunchback jester, Rigoletto. Rigoletto then pays a hit man to kill the duke, but it doesn't go according to plan.
Rigoletto has become not only one of the great baritone roles in opera, but one of opera's great characters.
"You lose a lot of opportunities if you are not acting it properly," says Hume, one of Australia's most experienced opera directors, who directed Rigoletto for Houston Grand Opera in 2009.
She was conscious that people can be set in their ways about Rigoletto because they've either been in or seen other productions. For this Rigoletto it was a case of shaking off the "this is how it's done approach".
"That just bores me to tears. My greatest fear coming into it was how much Warwick would be open to a new way of looking at it," she says.
"From day one it's just, 'How are we going to do it?' Neither of us have yet got the complete picture. We are getting there. We have got some really key things. It's a very complicated character, so you can keep finding detail for making that character more alive. But you have to have an artist that's wanting to do it and wanting to find those things that are particular for this Rigoletto.
"One of the things I hate sometimes about Rigoletto is when he is so self-pitying. But in this case he's not. He's really just struggling with that. If there's a way of fixing it, he would. [But] he's a mess. I like messy. The other thing that I like is that there's a wildness. I like to see a ferocity ... and I think Warwick's got that. As Rigoletto you need that."
"It's a role that pushes you to the edge and slightly over it," says Fyfe. "It is what Hamlet or King Lear is to Shakespeare to an actor. And we are taking a Shakespearean approach to it [in this opera]. It really bares that gravitas. It's near the top of Verdi's canon of work and, really, it's like a freight train of an opera."
- The Dominion Post
Have you read Kiwi author Eleanor Catton's Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries?Related story: What now for Eleanor Catton?