Review: Seattle Opera’s Rigoletto one for the age of Trump
Review: Seattle Opera’s Rigoletto one for the age of Trump

Seattle Opera’s Rigoletto is set in a modern dystopia.



When: August 10 to 28

Where: McCaw Hall, Seattle

Tickets and info:

Seattle Opera’s summer extravaganza is a modern dress Rigoletto, in nine performances at the spiffy McCaw Hall.

Seattle Opera made its considerable reputation with Wagner offered in the summer months; in recent years Wagner has been phased out, but summer opera has remained a cornerstone of the SO agenda, with blockbusters like last year’s Porgy and Bess.

Giuseppe Verdi’s 1851 Rigoletto, based on Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse, is an enduring chestnut mounted by just about opera company in the world. How has Seattle chosen to create contemporary buzz around this ultratraditional offering? It’s hardly an edifying tale, with lots of violence, sex and, above all, men behaving very badly. Especially toward women.

Sound familiar? Verdi’s librettist Francesco Maria Piave set the story in Renaissance Mantua. In Seattle’s latest production a contemporary womanizing Duke rules as philanderer-in-chief.

“It’s not explicitly Trump’s America, or Berlusconi’s Italy, but a modern, highly recognizable version of the dystopian, brutal, corrupt society Victor Hugo and Verdi imagined,” explains director Lindy Hume. In her reimagining, created for New Zealand Opera, Hume demands we reconsider the unholy trinity of power, sex, and violence in a work where the devil (the Duke) gets the best tune.

Requisite to the success of any Rigoletto are the three principals: the Duke; Rigoletto, his court jester; and Gilda, Rigoletto’s sheltered daughter. (SO has expediently double cast the principals, given the demands of the run.) I suspect almost anyone could put together the trajectory of the predictably melodramatic plot from just these snippets of information.

Soprano Madison Leonard is an impressive Gilda.


In the opening night team, soprano Madison Leonard was an impressive Gilda, with exemplary high notes, a fine way with a musical line, and the vocal presence to more than hold her own in ensembles. Plus she looked the part, and handled its incongruities with conviction.

Tenors are most often the good guys and lovers; here Verdi goes against type. As the despicable Duke, Liparit Avetisyan displayed a vivid sense of Verdi style and all the necessary swagger, while managing to look sinister in three contemporary costume clichés: top end business attire; upscale preppy casual; and sleazy low-life leather.

As the crookbacked title character, baritone Lester Lynch doesn’t get the most popular arias, but he was the star of the show nonetheless: a singing actor par excellence whose intensity carried to the back of the hall, and who made the most of his character’s potent mix of smothering paternal responsibility, guilt, and thirst for vengeance.

Verdi doesn’t give extensive opportunities to his minor roles, but as the assassin Sparafucile, bass Ante Jerkunica turned in a chilling performance. And the sublime third act quartet with Rigoletto, Gilda, the Duke, and Sparafucile’s sister Giovanna — in this production a tawdry sex worker played by Nerys Jones — was beautifully balanced.

Tenor Liparit Avetisyan as Mantua’s philanderer-in-chief.


The Duke’s enabling entourage were presented as a mosaic of the powerful and the corrupt: military, police, clergy, hangers-on, and yes men exuding the relaxed entitlement that can turn deadly in a flash. Big stage pictures were rounded out with secretaries and party girls. The orchestra was good, and conductor Carlo Montanro knows his Verdi, and how to flatter singers.

Seattle Opera’s Rigoletto is set in a modern dystopia.


Everyone in the cast contributed to the production’s considerable success but it is Hume’s theatrical vision that was exceptional. Sets range from a crushingly grand representation of the Duke’s palace (complete with banks of video screens) to sketchy glimpses of a bus shelter, a dive bar, rooms in Rigoletto’s shabby home, often in disquieting motion as if to emphasize the fragility of the powerless.

Try as she may, Hume can’t quite gloss over some of the 19th century (male) attitudes inherent in the libretto. Most obviously, Gilda’s willingness to stand by her loathsome man must simply be accepted since it can’t be changed. In every other way this is a production as nasty as the piece itself, and works in a way which conventional productions regularly fail to do.

While it’s probable there won’t be a long wait for another Vancouver Rigoletto, opera fans who want to see a remarkable modern dress production will find the short trip south of the border entirely worthwhile.


CLICK HERE to report a typo.

Is there more to this story? We’d like to hear from you about this or any other stories you think we should know about. Email [email protected]