A new production of Verdi's opera Rigoletto sets the tale of lust, murder and revenge in Silvio Berlusconi's contemporary Italy.

We have barely met and Lindy Hume, who's in the country putting the finishing touches to her production of Rigoletto for NBR New Zealand Opera, confesses that she likes us. The high-powered Australian director and self-described operatic nomad has taken Offenbach to Perth, Rossini to Houston, and Britten to the Aldeburgh Festival. She seems extremely happy to be bringing Verdi to Wellington and Auckland.

"I'm not just being diplomatic," she laughs. "It's not only working with this particular company, but it's also a matter of the culture and the people; I feel warm and welcome here."

Hume is strangely reluctant to talk too much about her more exotic ventures on international opera stages. She offers one piquant detail from her experience of presenting Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire to the Swiss in the small town of St Gallen.

"It was a mostly American cast," she remembers. "It was funny rehearsing sweaty New Orleans scenes while snow was falling outside in the Swiss mountains."


Hume's last Rigoletto was for Houston Grand Opera. "I was part of a team brought together to breathe new life into an old production. It was set in the Renaissance, and it was dark and sinister - all the things you might want it to be."

The Australian's new take on the opera, which opens its Auckland season on Thursday week, "was created in a more organic way. It grew from a germ of an idea I'd discussed with Aidan Lang, the general director of the company here, and then built up from that with all my team."

Follow-through is important and she hopes New Zealand audiences will get a special satisfaction from watching "an original idea pursued to its ultimate resolution".

In Houston, Hume had instigated a few unexpected directorial touches. Gilda was murdered by Maddalena rather than by Sparafucile, and the house lights were turned up when the Duke sang his La donna e mobile. Today she is cautious about revealing what twists might be encountered in the new production.

"I wanted something that speaks in the same language as the composer," she explains. "Something that has the same dark chocolate kind of tone. I also wanted to catch the various extremes of the opera, one moment big and epic, the next almost rock'n'roll; all this as well as doing justice to its great psychological insight."

There may not be electric guitars on stage but Lindy Hume's Rigoletto is an up-to-date affair, set in the present-day Italy of Silvio Berlusconi, "which makes it very contemporary", she says. "And very easy for people to hook into."

She likes the way that Richard Roberts' set reflects her conception, but is understandably vague about any upcoming coups de theatre.

"It's quite filmic," she explains, pointing out how Roberts' vision cleverly combines the indoor and outdoor requirements of the opera. "It's a set that can do lots of brilliant things.

"This is an opera that ranges from the wealth, power, corruption and excess of the Duke's court to the low-life characters such as the assassin and the hooker who don't have any power at all. To be able to put all this together, cheek by jowl on stage, is very exciting."

Inevitably, we talk about how the original Victor Hugo play and Verdi's opera were plagued by censorship in their time, in both France and Italy. How easy is it, then, to shock audiences in 2012?

"Well, political corruption is hardly unknown to us," she counters, "but we're so numbed to it that it's not really going to shock. And though violence still has the raw potential to shock, it's front and centre on our TV screen every day."

Perhaps the biggest jolt to today's sensibilities of today is the Testosterone Tom character of the Duke.

"He's such a classic cad," Hume laughs. "In the course of the opera he plows seven women we know of, including his wife. It's a little like Charlie's Angels is playing in his brain."

The libidinous lord is portrayed by Mexican tenor Rafael Rojas who was a brilliant Canio in NBR New Zealand Opera's Pagliacci last year. He will be singing the celebrated La donna e mobile, which Hume considers to be "the most misogynistic aria ever written".

She may not be pulling up the house lights as in Houston, but feels the aria will make the impact intended.

"The audience will be seeing people on stage from all strata of society and they'll recognise them as such. This sleazy jerk of a Duke is just one of the many species. And, as statistics prove that more women than men go to opera, this is one for you, girls!"

Elizabeth Hudson, in a thought-provoking essay in the opera's programme booklet, references Julian Budden's observation that Verdi's Rigoletto is just as revolutionary in its way as Beethoven's Eroica Symphony.

"It is a major work," Hume agrees, comparing its title character to Shakespeare's Lear.

She could not imagine a better Rigoletto than Warwick Fyfe, who shared the stage with Rafel Rojas in last year's Pagliacci as an outstanding Tonio.

"Warwick's a very smart guy and sees the multi-dimensionality of the character and all its complexities as a challenge and an opportunity, rather than thinking, 'I've got to do this better than the great Cappuccilli did it'."

As for the opera itself, "it's a piece that still excites jaded old me after all these years," Hume laughs. "And there's a lot of people out there who still think it has something to say in 2012.

"What Verdi is telling us is that nothing's fair. People get away with s*** and the Duke's still around. It's a pretty despairing message. Rigoletto the man is completely messed up and misguided. It's not like he's a great man; in fact, he's a very little man with his flaccid attempts at revenge. But what he stirs up are great human emotions."

NBR NZ Opera's Rigoletto

Where and when: Aotea Centre, June 7-17; see the-edge.co.nz for performance times

Bodies in sacks

Verdi's Rigoletto was one hot potato in its time, but then so was Victor Hugo's Le roi s'amuse, the play that inspired it. In France, the main issue with the authorities was that of disrespecting a prickly monarch; in Italy, it was also the violence of bodies in sacks and the grotesque title character.

What an irony when the composer had expressed such joy in undertaking the project. "The subject is grand and immense," Verdi wrote. "And there is a character that is one of the greatest creations that the theatre can boast of, in any country and in all history."

Premiered on March 11, 1851, at Venice's La Fenice Theatre, Rigoletto was the first of the three operas that established Verdi's name - Il Trovatore and La Traviata would follow in 1853.

Librettist Francesco Maria Piave, who had first worked with the composer only a year previously, took Verdi's advice to heart when he told him, "Stick to the French and nothing will go wrong."

The result is a compact libretto, remarkably faithful to Hugo. When it does depart from the original, as in the moving final scene, played on an intimate rather than public scale, Piave and Verdi create truly compelling theatre.

The review of the opera's opening night gave some clue as to its greatness. Early on, there was the comment that this was a work of too much novelty to be judged in a single performance. The reviewer then did comment about the oddities of the subject, praising Verdi's orchestration, presenting as it did an orchestral that "speaks for you, weeps and conveys passion to you".

The critic had been concerned there were not enough vocal ensembles, yet the opera has one of the very greatest in the Quartet, Bella figlia dell'amore; a tune so famous that Liszt opened his celebrated Rigoletto Paraphrase with it.

While Wagner in Germany was working towards a continuous operatic texture, Verdi was happy to pen eminently tuneful arias, designed to allow the reward of applause.

The Duke's La Donna e Mobile is more song than aria and Gilda's coloratura showcase, Caro nome was not so difficult, Verdi assured sopranos, if sung at a moderate pace in a whisper.

Rigoletto himself has a number of memorable scenes, from Act I's Pari siamo which has the power of a Shakespearian soliloquy. Later in the opera, there is a particularly riveting confrontation in which he approaches the court in search of his daughter, resulting in the savage Cortigiani, vil razza dannata (Courtiers, vile damned race).
Rigoletto has appeared in many guises, most famously transposed to New York's Little Italy in the 1950s by Jonathan Miller, but its powerful and very human message, with the right performers, would lose little on a bare stage.