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by Welsh National Opera at New Theatre Oxford

 22nd November 2019.

A review by Julia Gasper

This production has everything you could hope for and is a major triumph for WNO.

The director, James Macdonald, has set it in the U.S. White House in what we are told is the Kennedy era. This shines a new light on the theme of male philandering, and the villainous Duke is a sexual predator for our times. When the curtain goes up in the second half to show the Oval Office, it is difficult not to remember what Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky got up to in there.


            The rôle of the Duke is taken by David Junghoon Kim, the prizewinning young Korean tenor with a stunning voice and all the command of the stage it takes to play this rôle. He succeeded in projecting a repulsively callous lecher, who woos the innocent young Gilda with romantic protestations that are wholly disingenuous, in the intervals of enjoying a few other females. It was tempting to boo him at the end but the audience kept their boos for Sparafucile (Wojtek Gierlach) the hired assassin.

As Rigoletto, the Duke’s jester and henchman, Mark S Doss gave a rivetting performace. With a fine, powerful voice and superb acting ability, he brought much insight into the part. The fact that he is the only black man in the Duke’s court among dozens of white courtiers becomes dramatically effective. Rigoletto is a cripple, bullied and regarded with derision by the other courtiers, yet he is also deeply compromised by serving the Duke and carrying out his unscrupulous orders. Doss communicated just how deeply Rigoletto is affected by the curse of Montorone, a father whose daughter the Duke has ruined. Rigoletto thinks that he can go along with the corruption of the Duke’s court yet somehow keep his own daughter forever apart, untouched by it. Of course he finds that what goes around, comes around.


            For me the evening’s discovery was Haegee Lee, who sang the part of Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda. This young soprano from South Korea studied at the Conservatoire National de Région Pierre Barbizet, Marseille, and then took part in the Young Artists’ Programme at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. She is still studying, and to judge from her stunning performance last night she is a future Queen of the Operatic Stage and musical legend. She absolutely held the audience in the palm of her hand with her exquisite delivery of some of the greatest arias Verdi ever wrote. Her duets with her father were tender and beautifully acted. The rôle is of course, unbearably tragic and the dark cruelty of the ending has made some people fear to see this opera again, but we endure the tale to be rewarded with singing of such expression in a brilliant, thrilling voice.

            The orchestra, conducted by Alexander Joel, rose to the heights of virtuosity required by Verdi’s very demanding score, a score that is dark and foreboding from the very opening chords. The rich brass sounds and deep cello murmurings are doomladen, and the more frivolous melodies for which the opera is popularly known should only be heard as musical irony.

            The original story “Le Roi S’Amuse”, comes from Victor Hugo, who as a republican intended it as an indictment of hereditary tyrants and those who serve them. This production relates the opera’s themes to absolutely contemporary concerns about unbridled sexual predators, the acceptability of what is now called “the sex trade”, the disturbing rise of human trafficking, and feminist protests about the undoubted harmful side effects of this ruthless commerce. All of that co-exists with a first-class musical tour-de-force.

                                                            Julia Gasper.




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