ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland

07/06/2012 - 17/06/2012

St James Theatre 2, Wellington

19/05/2012 - 26/05/2012

Production Details

One of opera’s greatest works takes centre stage 

Rigoletto is full of soaring music which makes one feel one’s heart is going to burst.  Dramatically, the title role is to an opera singer what Hamlet or King Lear is to an actor.” – Warwick Fyfe, Rigoletto 

The NBR New Zealand Opera’s production of Verdi’s classic opera, Rigoletto, opens in Wellington on Saturday 19 May and Auckland on Thursday 7 June. 

Aidan Lang, General Director of the company, is excited to be presenting this great and enduring work. “The great works of the operatic canon are great for a reason,” he says. “Beneath the surface of their glorious music and thrilling theatre, there are ostensibly bigger issues at stake, issues to make us think about the world we live in today and tell us things about ourselves in a direct and sometimes forceful way. Rigoletto is one such piece. 

“By interweaving two enormously strong dramatic threads – the abuse of power and the power of the father/daughter relationship – Rigoletto retains its potent impact to this day.” 

Hardened by a life of daily taunts, Rigoletto aids and abets his master in the seduction of young women. He mocks their stricken husbands and fathers – until the tables are horribly turned. The Duke seduces Rigoletto’s own daughter, Gilda, and Rigoletto is driven mad with despair. Revenge seems to be his only solution – but fate has something else in store.

The largely shady, but true-to-life characters in Rigoletto are vividly portrayed by a superb, predominantly male cast. 

After stand-out performances in The Italian Girl in Algiers and Cav & Pag, Australia’s highly acclaimed baritone, Warwick Fyfe, returns to undertake the great central role of Rigoletto, “the zenith of the Verdi baritone repertoire,” he says.

Soprano Emma Pearson, an equally popular Australian on our shores, returns from her triumphant Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro to sing his daughter Gilda.

Following a star turn in last year’s Cav & Pag, Mexican tenor Rafael Rojas is back with the company to play the philandering Duke of Mantua.

From Egypt, bass baritone Ashraf Sewailam joins the cast as the hired killer, Sparafucile. And from New Zealand, baritone Rodney Macann, one of our greatest and most successful international artists, takes the role of Count Monterone, while mezzo soprano Kristin Darragh, whose international career is just taking off, returns from her German base to sing Maddalena.

Smaller principal roles are sung by James Clayton (Count Ceprano), Derek Hill (Matteo Borsa), Matthew Landreth (Cavaliere Marullo), Emma Fraser (Countess Ceprano), Wendy Doyle (Giovanna), and Moses Mackay (The Usher).

Rounding out the cast is the all-male Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus.

Rigoletto is sung in Italian with English surtitles. The production is directed by Lindy Hume, designed by Richard Roberts, and lit by Jason Morphett. Wyn Davies conducts the Vector Wellington Orchestra and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.


WELLINGTON – St James Theatre
Sat 19, Thu 24 & Sat 26 May – 7.30pm, Tue 22 May – 6pm

AUCKLAND – ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre
Thu 7, Sat 9, Wed 13 & Fri 15 June – 7:30pm, Sun 17 June – 2:30pm

Single Tickets: $49.50 to $189.50.
Concessions available for benefactors, senior citizens, students and group bookings.
Service fees apply.

Bookings: NZ Opera Box Office, Tel (09) 379 4068 or (04) 499 8343, or:
Wellington: Ticketek, Tel 0800 TICKETEK (0800 842 538) or www.ticketek.co.nz
Auckland: The Edge, Tel 0800 BUYTICKETS (0800 289 842) or www.the-edge.co.nz 

Further information: www.nzopera.com  

The NBR New Zealand Opera receives core funding from Creative New Zealand and Auckland Council through the Auckland Regional Amenities Funding Act.  

Conductor                       WYN DAVIES 
Director                          LINDY HUME 
Production Designer      RICHARD ROBERTS 
Lighting Designer           JASON MORPHETT 
Assistant Director         STEVEN ANTHONY WHITING

Rigoletto                         WARWICK FYFE 
Duke of Mantua              RAFAEL ROJAS 
Gilda                               EMMA PEARSON 
Sparafucile                     ASHRAF SEWAILAM 
Maddalena                      KRISTIN DARRAGH 
Count Monterone           RODNEY MACANN 
Count Ceprano               JAMES CLAYTON 
Countess Ceprano         EMMA FRASER 
Matteo Borsa                  DEREK HILL 
Giovanna                        WENDY DOYLE 
Cavaliere Marullo           MATTHEW LANDRETH

Accompanied by the Vector Wellington Orchestra  
and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra  

With the Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus  

Rigoletto takes a bold step into today’s world

Review by William Dart 09th Jun 2012

Once again, NBR New Zealand Opera offers a theatrical experience on a scale unlikely to be found elsewhere in our city.

Director Lindy Hume has transformed Verdi’s Rigoletto into vital theatre on a grand scale, setting its passions and violence in the chambers and corridors of modern power; nominally those of Berlusconi’s Italy but beware, one day it could be closer to home. [More


Make a comment

Surprises amid complexities in inventive production

Review by Penny Dodd 08th Jun 2012

This is a Rigoletto to remember, for the lavish setting and moody scene changes, the powerful music beautifully sung and played, and the modern twist that gives a vital sense of relevance to the narrative, but mostly because all these elements combine so that none overshadows the other. You are given a thoroughly integrated piece of fabulous story telling. 

It may be customary to set the overture, but I’ve never seen the orchestra tuning up set before. This was just the first surprise of many in this riveting evening in the theatre. 

This production of Rigoletto is set in modern day Italy, as if in the ‘court’ of Silvio Berlusconi, complete with sycophantic suits and military leaders, Rigoletto the sharp tongued procurer, and assorted hangers on, hookers, paparazzi, and low-lifes, all as plausible today as their equivalents were in their original setting – Mantua in the sixteenth century. 

The hotel room antics of Dominique Strauss-Kahn provide the proof that there still exists a culture of sleaze in the ruling classes of the twenty first century, making it an easy acceptance of the character of the Duke in this contemporary interpretation. Rafael Rojas conjures an animalistic, libido driven Duke of Mantua, revelling in his powers of seduction. Unfortunately he was not well on opening night, so the Act 2 ‘Ella mi fu rapita’ was missing.

Rigoletto, in his horrible cardigan, his specs and little moustache is a complex anti-hero. The rage he carries, alongside his devotion to his daughter, and his subservience to the Duke and the court, make for a powerful portrayal of a passionate but ultimately monstrous and ineffectual man.

Warwick Fyfe gives his all in the role. The subtlety of his acting and the power and range of his vocal expression are most convincing. His character seems to be always out of step with the world; he fits in nowhere, his formality covering up his hatred, his love for his daughter making him as much her jailer as a protector. He is not an accepted member at court, as the Duke’s PA or concierge, but is permitted to entertain because of his sharp wit. We don’t like him, but cannot fail to be moved when the curse comes true and his daughter dies.

Emma Pearson makes a fine Gilda, performing an exquisite Caro Nome in pink jamies; serving to highlight the great gulf between her naivety and the Duke’s predatory intentions. Gilda’s death scene, singing in a crumpled heap on the ground, is most affecting. Her voice is a joy to listen to. Gilda’s readiness to die for the Duke is troubling, but this is Rigoletto’s story so we explain it as a blind first love.

Ashraf Sewailam is impressive as the bar owner and hood, Sparafucile; his long bass note easily heard in the improved Aotea acoustic.

Another surprise in this production is in the bar scene, with a setting of the famous quartet that has changed how I will remember this operatic warhorse forever. Kristen Darragh acquits herself terrifically well as Maddalena. Somehow managing to sing whilst delivering a sizzling characterisation, revealing herself as – like Gilda – in love with the Duke, bad boy that he is. Perhaps Maddalena being the one to murder Gilda is as much about removing a rival as it is about delivering a body to satisfy Sparafucile’s contract.

Interesting too is the portrayal of Monterone’s daughter as a skimpily dressed party girl (rather than an innocent), inviting the questionable assumption that “she was asking for it”, an attitude that carries no weight in 2012, making the Duke richly deserving of the curse delivered by Monterone. 

The production team are to be much admired, giving us such inventive juxtapositions of designer Richard Roberts’ lavish state rooms, tatty domestic kitchen, and seedy bar, all beautifully observed and richly represented. The revolving stage whirls slowly, in silence, as we are given some space and time to ponder both the beauty of what is in front of us and the implications of what we are seeing. Jason Morphett’s lighting is spare and effective, with great use of shadow and atmospheric half light. 

Wyn Davies is in command of a sparkling Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, holding the whole work together with great vigour and Italianate panache. There are notable moments from woodwind and brass, and the strings are in fine form. The connection between stage and pit is impeccable. 

The Chapmann Tripp Chorus excels in both voice and stage presence, the men very comfortable in their individual characters; contemporary and convincing.

The ASB Theatre at the Aotea has undergone a major renovation with the carpet replaced by parquet flooring and the installation of acoustic panels and new seats. The stalls have been completed and opened on 31st March this year. The circle will be completed over the coming summer. The resulting huge improvement in the acoustic for opera is most welcome. The sound from singers, chorus and orchestra is now thrillingly loud when it should be, and the softer tones project well. It’s still a big space to fill, but I no longer feel the need to travel to Wellington to enjoy a great night from the NBR NZ Opera. 


Make a comment

Vocally superb, riveting theatre

Review by John Button 21st May 2012

It is now nearly eight years since Rigoletto was last experienced in Wellington, and this is, by my count, the fifth production seen in Wellington since the 1970s. Thus, Verdi’s controversial opera based on Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse, could be said to be part of our opera culture, so when an audience, carrying memories of previous productions, cheers the opening night to the echo, you know something special is on offer.

Like the splendid 2004 production, this production had a modern setting, but one focussed on a mafia style hierarchy living in decadent opulence and supported by all parts of society ( witness the prominent cardinal amongst the fawning courtiers), and tinged with a really sinister air.

Directed with superb assurance by Lindy Hume within a marvellous, endlessly clever, set designed by Richard Roberts, and atmospherically lit by Jason Morphett, the stage is set for the fine cast.

Vocally, this is almost certainly the best Rigoletto we have heard. The cast is astonishingly accomplished right down to the smallest part, and the male chorus is a miracle of dramatic precision.

The support singing of Rodney Macann as Monterone and Ashraf Sewailam as the assassin Sparafucile would be hard to better, both vocally and dramatically, and the even smaller roles were a crucial part of this rivetting piece of theatre.

But it is the three principals that set this production apart. Tenor Rafael Rojas and baritone Warwick Fyfe as The Duke of Mantua and Roigoletto respectively, renew their partnership from last years I Pagliacci, to even greater effect. What a marvellously self indulgent Duke we heard from Rojas, and what a splendidly confident, ringing, tenor voice he has. He suited the opulent setting of the opening to perfection – and wouldn’t devotees of the SoHo channel just love that opening scene!

Warwick Fyfe has a voice that is scarcely less impressive, and he points the double standards that is at the heart of Rigoletto’s character to perfection. And as his daughter Gilda, Emma Pearson is near perfection. She is a most dramatically believable ingenue, topped with a wonderful voice; I thought that Maria Constanza Nocentini was superlative in negotiating the coloratura of Caro Nome in 2004, but here, Pearson trumps her with a miracle of accurate vocalism.

Underpinning all this was the taut, expressive, playing of the Vector Wellington Orchestra under the knowing hand of Wyn Davies. 


Make a comment

Full of powerful drama, glamorous spectacle, wonderful singing and highly evocative music

Review by Sharon Talbot 21st May 2012

Let’s be upfront here: Rigoletto is a nasty story – a nasty story set to great music. It is Verdi’s music that transforms from scummy to tragic the age-old story of a glamorous playboy who takes women he fancies, willing or not, and gets away with it because of his wealth and position.

Even though the story comes from a play by Victor Hugo about a philandering French king, in our post-feminist age it is still relevant: Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s hotel maid and Silvio Berlusconi’s underage sex-party ‘friends’ immediately spring to mind. And the later is clearly referenced by the contemporary Italian setting of this production, in which the Duke is a glamorous, media-loving politician who throws lavish parties with lots of visible flesh (male and female).

But the focus of the opera is not on the playboy nor on his victim but on the psychological turmoil of her loving but vengeful father Rigoletto. At least that’s how it’s written – whether NZ Opera’s production achieves this is debatable.

Twisted in body and mind, Rigoletto’s day job is as jester and procurer to the powerful Duke of Mantua and his corrupt court. When Monterone, the father of one of their female victims, storms in to rescue her and berate them, Rigoletto taunts him. As he is hauled off to prison, Monterone calls down on them a father’s curse, which starts to haunt Rigoletto.

The Duke has already spotted Rigoletto’s protected teenage daughter in church and sets out in disguise to seduce her. Gilda falls in love as totally as only a teenager can and, despite kidnap and her father’s best efforts to show her what an arrogant player her lover is, she ends up sacrificing her life so that the Duke can live and love again.

Rigoletto’s paternal angst is exacerbated by being responsible for Gilda’s death [spoiler warning!]: the assassin Sparafucile who kills her was actually hired by Rigoletto to murder the Duke in revenge for his seduction of Gilda – a tragic twist worthy of Sophocles (and which was highlighted by NZO in their publicity). The curse has been fulfilled. [ends]

So why is the focus of this Rigoletto skewed? It is partly because the supporting roles are performed so strongly that they outshine the lead role. In fact, Emma Pearson’s Gilda shines so brightly that this production could be called Gilda! Rafael Rojas’ jet-setting Duke, and even Ashraf Sewailam in the smaller role of Sparafucile, made stronger impressions than Warwick Fyfe’s Rigoletto.

This not due to the production design, which is highly effective. Richard Roberts’ opulent set for the Duke’s marble-walled baroque palace is fabulous, and contrasts tellingly with Rigoletto’s old-fashioned suburban flat and Sparafucile’s rundown bar. The dim red glow on the assassin in his bar is particularly ominous and memorable. Jason Morphett’s lighting is atmospheric throughout and always enhances the drama.

A revolving stage is used effectively to change the scenes without breaking the narrative flow, and is positively cinematic during the kidnapping of Gilda. Here, the continuous movement, violence, black masks and flashing torches make this scene like a special forces raid in a thriller movie.

While the flown palace set remaining visible above the other sets on trucks did annoy me somewhat, it was also an effective symbol of the Duke’s power literally hanging over the other characters, especially dwarfing Gilda in her little bed and fluffy pink PJs.

Despite this, Gilda shines in this production. Her character is usually portrayed as one of those wishy-washy heroines you just want to shake some character into, but Australian Emma Pearson’s Gilda is far from a cipher. Her full-blooded interpretation is entirely convincing as a passionate teenager who will go her own way, no matter what the cost. Her performance of the lovely ‘Caro Nome’ aria while going to bed is an especially fresh and down-to-earth portrayal of a girl in the throes of first love.

Pearson is not only a superb singer but an equally superb, imaginative actress. Her Susanna in NZO’s Figaro two years ago also stole the show. We are lucky to get her in NZ, and should make the most of her while she is still affordable.

Mexican Rafael Rojas as the Duke is vocally ideal, a true Italianate tenor, and he has the looks and presence to show how charming the Duke can be. Clearly relishing the role, Rojas dominates the first scene especially, and sings gloriously throughout. The Duke gets the best tunes and his arias are Verdi’s gift to the tenor repertoire, especially ‘Questa o quella’ and ‘La Donna è mobile’. Like the Duke, they are superficially so charming and carefree, and only when you listen closely do you realise their unpleasant misogynist message.

As the assassin Sparafucile, Egyptian Ashraf Sewailam has a powerful presence, both vocally and physically. His size and stillness is dangerous, even when slouched in a bus stop for his first meeting with Rigoletto. In their duet, it is Sewailam who draws the eye and ear.

Kiwi Kirstin Darragh’s portrayal of Sparafucile’s sluttish sister Maddalena is gutsy, both vocally and dramatically. Having her kill Gilda is a convincing twist to her portrayal of the character. This is the strongest all-round performance I’ve seen from her.

A smaller but vital role was less than impressive. Rodney Macann should be the ideal Monterone, perfect in appearance and age, and with vast experience in the repertoire. But his obvious discomfort, searching for cues from the conductor, and not being fully audible was disappointing. Maybe lack of rehearsal was the cause, or perhaps some of the insecurity of the orchestra in this scene affected him. A conductor of Wyn Davies calibre will no doubt sort this out promptly.

James Clayton’s Count Ceprano was suitably angry, and Emma Fraser as his straying wife fluttered beautifully. Matt Landreth, Derek Hill, Wendy Doyle and Kate Lineham all played their small roles well. As Monterone’s corrupted daughter, Bianca Andrew made a memorable impression despite not singing a note. One of our most promising young singers, this cameo showcased her acting ability.

The male-only chorus both sounded and looked excellent. They contributed a powerful extra character to the drama, extending the Duke’s menacing reach by acting as his sycophantic shadow.

With all this going so well, why the reservations about the production? It is partly that Rigoletto himself fails to really engage us emotionally. Fyfe’s sonorous baritone is fine for the role, although perhaps lacking the required expressive range. Verdi’s music is full of psychological tension between Rigoletto’s cruel humour, cringing sycophancy, vengeful anger and powerful paternal love – so much more than the stock sad clown with the Charlie Chaplin moustache that this production made him appear at times.

Rigoletto’s lack of impact is partly due to the direction. His role in the contemporary setting is not clear. Dressed in a white jacket among the dark-suited politicians and military officers played by the chorus, it isn’t clear from his behaviour if Rigoletto was the butler, PR man, entertainer or … what? An audience member told me he worked out Rigoletto was the fool when the sub-titles told him so. The lead character should not be such a puzzle, and keeping him a fool is an anachronism. This distances him from the audience, since a court jester has no obvious parallel in today’s world. This is often an issue with updating productions.

Instead, Rigoletto’s role needs to be clear from the beginning so we can engage with him. In the famous English National Opera 1950s-mafia production that kept being revived, Rigoletto was the barman in the capo Duke’s favourite bar. This made sense of his uncomfortably part taunting jokester and part servile procurer role.

Where Fyfe most underwhelms is in his acting – specifically, too much of it. Overacting is a common failure of opera singers, but his is highlighted by being surrounded by excellent actors. He often moves too much when intense stillness was required, so losing the dramatic focus, and at other times fails to gain the attention required.

The flashy TV screens on the back wall don’t help him in the first scene, although they work well in establishing the Duke’s political power. But the crow flock sequences that followed distract attention from the stage action. Presumably the crows are meant to add menace to the jetset glitter and to parallel the bullying on the stage, but they hinder rather than help Rigoletto. And since the crow motif is not developed through the production, it would be better left out.

Another directorial idea that doesn’t help Rigoletto is the manner of his arrival to collect the body from the assassin. He arrives on the revolve with feet primly together and umbrella up, looking like a Chaplinesque clown, and then calmly takes down his umbrella. But this is when Rigoletto should be stripped to his most raw, vengeful being. Instead, the symbolism of the preceding wild storm music is undermined and the dramatic focus lost. Fyfe then over compensates in the final scene by throwing himself around too much, to the extent of missing the side lighting and rocking the set walls. Some of this could be due to lack of sufficient rehearsal and could well improve in later performances.

These reservations aside, NZO’s Rigoletto is full of powerful drama, glamorous spectacle, wonderful singing and, of course, highly evocative music – where would Hollywood composers be without the example of Verdi? Go hear the original!


Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council