Rigoletto | Opera Queensland Left - Emma Matthews. Cover - Steven Harrison and cast. Photos - Rob Maccoll

La donna è mobile
– the signature aria from Giuseppe Verdi’s mid-career masterpiece Rigoletto – palpably evokes all things Italian. It is immediately and shamefully familiar to opera novices as it bursts to life during the third act, having leached its way into movies, television shows and every third pasta sauce advertisement as a quasi-anthem for the gregarious race.

And yet few know the true context. Verdi assigns the much-loved canzone to the gigolo Duke, who mocks his womanly conquests yet comically ends up describing himself.

“Women are fickle,” he sings, a libretto from Francesco Maria Piave based on a Victor Hugo play. “Like a feather in the wind, they change in tone – and in thought. Always a loveable, graceful visage, that in tears or in laughter – is lying.”

More than 150 years after it first debuted (after very nearly being banned) in Venice, Rigoletto is still a surprising work. Its deliciously dark and scandalous plot resonates profoundly in this restaged production from Opera Australia, with memorable arias, contemporary scenic touches and a lush cinematic scope to thrill a new generation of opera lovers.

The twisted tale is grounded in the human truths of love and loss. Rigoletto is one of opera’s great tortured geniuses, desperately protecting the purity of his love-struck only daughter Gilda as a dark world of exploitation and depravity close in.

The downtrodden hunchback acts as a court jester cum wing-man for the philandering Duke of Mantua, who now has his eyes set on Gilda. But when the Duke’s goons – fashionably suited with dark shades, no less – steal away Gilda, thinking she is Rigoletto’s mistress, the sad clown plots revenge that will prolong his own curse.

Original director Elijah Moshinsky writes in the program of Rigoletto belonging more “in the modern world of the psychological thriller than the world of the costume epic”. He creates familiar scenes: from the ramshackle palace in Act 2, strewn with bottles and decoration and passed-out revellers, to the Sparafucile’s Inn in Act 3 scantily dressed as any modern bordello from the seedier side of the tracks.

The brilliantly inventive staging has the audience lurking behind Rigoletto as he limps into the shadows. From the palace we watch him slip out the door, the stage revolving to reveal his lair. We then follow him outside, the stage revolving once more to show the street and eventually his home, a magnificent two-storey set that allows the action to take place on multiple levels at once. Michael Yeargan (designer) and Robert Bryan (lighting design, reproduced by Cliff Bothwell) add a spectacularly brooding feel to the drama.

Opening night was robbed of American tenor Steven Harrison, who was a last-minute withdrawal as the dastardly Duke. But Virgilio Marino stepped up admirably to the role, teaming the necessary swagger with a superb voice to relish his famed Act 3 aria. One of the country’s top sopranos, Emma Matthews disappeared under the blonde wig of Gilda to make a poignant debut in the role.

But it is Australian opera veteran John Bolton Wood who turns in the most deeply affecting performance as the title character. Prepared to do anything to protect his daughter, he resonates with the desperation and heartbreak every father knows to some extent.

The only criticism you can make of this Rigoletto is the company only just gets away with the unamplified voices. The performance opened flat as the packed audience struggled to hear the principals sing out from enclosed sound-muffling sets. The ears eventually adjust and the chorus combines with the Queensland Orchestra to produce the aural reverberation opera should provide. The remaining five performances should find a better balance.

So get a ticket. It is opera at its finest, as grand a staging as Verdi’s classic tragedy demands. And for opera virgins, you’ll never look at those pasta sauce ads the same way again.

Opera Queensland
by Giuseppe Verdi

Original Director Elijah Moshinsky
Revival Director Cathy Dadd

Venue: Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Dates: 17, 22, 24, 27, 29 and 31 October, 2009
Tickets: from $46* (*includes qtix booking fee)
Bookings: qtix 136 246 | www.qtix.com.au

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