Joe Green, as a friend of mine calls evergreen opera composer Giuseppe Verdi, turns 200 in October. But we don't have to wait until then to help him celebrate, with WA Opera holding a big birthday bash on February 2 in Supreme Court Gardens. And everyone's invited.
This year's free Opera in the Park is Rigoletto, Verdi's dark masterpiece which had its premiere in Venice in 1851 and which features one of the most popular arias of all time, the Duke of Mantua's La donna e mobile - made famous in our own time by countless tenors, Luciano Pavarotti and Mario Lanza among them.
But it's the baritone role of the tortured, hunchbacked court jester Rigoletto which is central to the opera's dramatic success - something Perth bass-baritone James Clayton, who will sing the role on the night, wants to emphasise. "I've seen it sung well and I've seen it acted well and I know which I'd prefer," he says.
Not that Clayton, so good in the title role of Verdi's Falstaff for WA Opera in 2011, wants to downplay the singing. The two go hand-in-hand.
"It's one of the most difficult baritone roles," he says. "But when I was covering it in New Zealand, I found what enabled me to sing the thing properly was understanding the character. And acting it. I suddenly found I was able to go places with my voice where I hadn't gone before. Especially in the softer passages.
"There is so much colour, it's really a juicy role to sink your teeth into. You can pull all the tricks out of your bag."
Spoiler alert: the Duke's jester Rigoletto is keen to help out his boss when it comes to facilitating the latter's amorous conquests - as keen as he is to torment those who suffer the fallout, such as Count Monterone, whose daughter has been "dishonoured" by the Duke.
Monterone places a curse on Rigoletto, which provides the opera with one of its recurring dramatic and musical themes. The courtiers, sick of being at the receiving end of Rigoletto's barbs and suspecting he may be keeping a mistress himself, decide to take revenge.
With the aid of a blindfolded Rigoletto, they kidnap the latter's daughter, Gilda, who has recently come back from a convent school and is in love with the Duke. Rigoletto has been led to believe they are actually kidnapping the Countess Ceprano, for the Duke's pleasure.
When Rigoletto finds out, he is furious and plots his own revenge against the Duke by negotiating with the hired gun, Sparafucile. But he is thwarted in this and his actions result in Gilda's death at the hands of Sparafucile, who delivers the dying Gilda up to Rigoletto in a sack.
Clayton says what makes Rigoletto such an interesting character to interpret is his complexity. And his simplicity. "He seems loving towards his daughter. But it's really control through fear. He's self-centred. A coward. Look at those scenes with Gilda where he seems to be so fatherly and yet such a bastard in other scenes."
Talking about the psychological aspects of the role, Clayton characterises Rigoletto's acid tongue as a defence mechanism. "Rigoletto has got that buffoonish quality Falstaff has and he makes people laugh," he says. "But the whole time he's tortured and physically deformed. The only thing he could get as a job was as a jester because he's a deformed freak.
"He's always the butt of every one's joke. So his only defence has been to have a barbed tongue. A defence mechanism built up over years. You have to wonder what his childhood must have been like."
Clayton is joined in the semi-staged performance by Katja Webb as Gilda, Rosario La Spina as the Duke of Mantua, and other fellow singers, including Andrew Collis, Fiona Campbell, Andrew Foote and Jun Zhang. The WA Opera Chorus and Symphony is conducted by Brian Castles-Onion, while the overall direction is by Stuart Maunder.Rigoletto is on February 2 at 8pm in Supreme Court Gardens. Entry is free. It will also be simulcast to Northbridge Piazza, Bunbury, Geraldton, Kalgoorlie, Albany, Esperance. For more information, visit waopera.asn.au.
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