Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
July 6, 2018

Elijah Moshinsky’s well-loved La Dolce Vita-inspired production of Rigoletto for Opera Australia, first seen in 1991, is by now almost as much of a warhorse as the opera itself – but a fine cast led by Slovak baritone Dalibor Jenis as Verdi’s hunchbacked jester demonstrates both still have plenty of currency.

When Opera Australia’s 2018 season was announced, legendary Italian baritone Leo Nucci was set to make his OA debut, singing three performances in a revival of Roger Hodgman’s 2014 production, but when Nucci withdrew, Jenis’ run was extended and the Moshinsky (revived by Hugh Halliday) swapped in.

RigolettoDalibor Jenis, Gennadi Dubinsky and chorus in Opera Australia’s Rigoletto. Photos © Prudence Upton

From Rigoletto’s claustrophobic dressing room to the opulent, portrait strung palace – where the jester makes his living needling courtiers and facilitating the Duke of Mantua’s romantic acquisitions – Michael Yeargan’s spectacular revolving dollhouse of a set keeps the action moving with swift almost filmic transitions. Against this backdrop, Moshinsky’s Mantua is one of brutal excess, in which women are treated as property to be jealously guarded, stolen and quarreled over – it’s a cesspit of toxic masculinity that, with its chorus of lads-out-on-the-town courtiers, is not as far-off as we might like.

Rigoletto, Opera Australia, ReviewDalibor Jenis in Opera Australia’s Rigoletto

Jenis was last seen in Sydney in 2016’s Luisa Miller and makes his role debut as Rigoletto. With a powerful, complex baritone, he shows he’s more than up to the vocal challenge, but his nuanced acting also reveals a multi-layered, conflicted Rigoletto to inspire both revulsion and, ultimately, sympathy. Jenis is a formidable presence – vocally and physically – and gives us a Rigoletto who, despite his reliance on a pair of canes, threatens to lash out with more than just his tongue (Gilda is guarded in his presence, wary of imminent violence). Yet he’s convincing in his love for his daughter – his desperation in Act II is palpable – and manages therefore to rally the audience’s pity in the tragic finale. While this is already an impressive turn in the role, Jenis’ performance will no doubt mature even further.

Irina Lungu in Opera Australia’s Rigoletto

Russian soprano Irina Lungu, making her Opera Australia debut, is a spirited Gilda who – while still naïve enough to be drawn in by the Duke’s charm – chafes against the restrictions imposed by a controlling father who won’t tell her his name, let alone let her out of the house. Her soprano is both flexible and refulgent, and she wields it with plenty of personality – the unspooling variations of her Caro nome are by turns shimmering and laughing (though some of the pianissimo notes in the stratosphere didn’t quite speak on opening night) while her Tutte le feste al tempio in the second act is chilling and the delicate moments of her final notes are beautifully rendered.

Gianluca Terranova brings an athletic, Italianate tenor to the Duke of Mantua, giving stunning performances not only in La donna è mobile but also in Act II’s Parmi veder le lagrime. If his voice isn’t already enough to convince of his youthful vigour, his agile scaling of Rigoletto’s drainpipe to reach a second storey window certainly does.

Gianluca Terranova and Sian Pendry in Opera Australia’s Rigoletto

Ukranian bass Taras Berezhansky brings a crisp edge to the assassin Sparafucile, while Australian mezzo Sian Pendry is an effective Maddalena, though her voice gets a little lost in the final act’s quartet. Another OA mainstay, bass Gennadi Dubinsky is a potent and commanding Monterone.

The Opera Australia Orchestra is in fine form, under the baton of Italian Verdi specialist Renato Palumbo, finding a muted subtlety in the brooding opening, while the chorus acquits themselves marvellously, hauntingly soft-spoken in their condemnation of Monterone in Act I before delivering a thrillingly paced crescendo.

If Moshinsky’s production at times upstages the music – the antics of housekeeper Giovanna (Dominica Matthews) are delightful but also turn the volume down on the duetting between Gilda and Rigoletto in Act I – it gives the opera an entertaining liveliness that isn’t always there, and moments of lightness (see the G&S style chorus choreography of hungover lads in Act II) neatly balance the opera’s darker core.

If this almost 30-year-old production offers little in the way of hope or a way forward in the #MeToo era, the male pack mentality and veneer of stifling 1950s conservatism against which the action takes place still manages to feel disturbingly contemporary. With excellent music and dramatic performances, there’s plenty of life left in this Rigoletto and Jenis’ compelling performance in the title role isn’t one to miss.

Opera Australia’s Rigoletto is at the Sydney Opera House until August 24