Singing soars above what risks being a one trick zebra

I have had a Jon Snow moment, watching a production that is based on one premiss, black people can be vulnerable outsiders, surrounded by as far as I can see virtually an overwhelmingly white audience. I am not sure what that says about opera or about its reach, but I also suspect that applying a shocking generalisation about such audiences it was also singing to the converted.

Director Femi Elufowoju Jr’s take on Verdi’s Rigoletto for Opera North is so obvious it is a wonder someone somewhere didn’t have a pop at the idea before. It ticks lots of boxes, funding bodies will love it and it isn’t particularly disruptive of the actual opera.

It doesn’t merit a great deal more to say about this aspect of the show. Gilda’s  gilded cage is filled with ballons, a toucan ona swing and a life size zebra, and when she has is reunited with father after the kidnaping she takes off her “Western” wig to release her braided hair. There are lots of Nigerian costumes and the lauded Willard White is given a particularly prominent positioning as the curse-casting Count Monterone.

Perhaps if the director had stopped with this one piece of playfulness it would have been fine but having gone out to make an impact he also drags the setting into the modern era with well you name it, he throws it in. Delivery boys on bicycles, syringes, pistols, mobile phone, burnt out cars, street dwellers’ tents – you get the picture.

It is the race element in the casting that is the “of note” element of the production and really all the other modern tropes and transpositions are so every day in productions to just wash over you.

Roman Arndt and Jasmine Habersham

Jasmine Habersham and Eric Greene

The production is at its best when you can say, yeah got it, and return to the actual Verdi opera and its shocking story of hypocrisy, survival, revenge, fidelity, revenge, immorality, and power abuse. Then what makes it such a timeless work is what is really at its heart, the relationship between a father and daughter he is desperate to protect and how that innocent girl makes the ultimate sacrifice. These universal themes can be left to an audience’s imagination (one would hope) to see how it applies to all types of settings, periods, and whatever vogues are a la mode.

In those two roles Eric Greene as Rigoletto and Jasmine Habersham as Gilda rise above the cluttered production to convey the different emotional levels of the roles. The set pieces arias and duets are delivered with elegance and passion, at times raw and gut wrenching, at others poignant and sublime.  The beauty of the singing transcended the production as, of course, they always should.

Roman Arndt sings a cheek  and sprightly young Duke, whose voice and generosity of acting rose above the shockingly awful costumes. Similarly, his hum along big hitter does not fail and you could just about see why the women fall for his charms. As the evil siblings Callum Thorpe is a gloriously rich Sparafucile paired with a gorgeously seductive Magdalena from Alyona Abramova.

Fortunately, directors cannot really get their hands on the orchestra and in the hands of Garry Walker the music soared above the too often distracting if well-meaning foibles on stage.

Grand Theatre, Leeds, until  February 19 and then tours until April 1.

Images Clive Barda.

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