Saturday 18 November 2017

Verdi, vidi vici: is this the finest opera?

Music, like football, bases its beauty in simplicity. Top-notch tunes, like the greatest of goals, are less about complexity and more about memorability.

So when 'La donna è mobile' hit them all for six when it made its first appearance on the opera stage 160 years ago as part of Rigoletto, Giuseppe Verdi must have known he was on to a winner.

Rigoletto's status as a first-class piece of musical drama was confirmed in the decade that followed as it thrilled audiences around the world.

It also made an unexpected appearance as part of the celebrations in Egypt for the opening of the Suez Canal. The show Verdi had been commissioned to write for the occasion wasn't ready in time, and Rigoletto was the one they pulled from his back catalogue for the climax on the big night.

It's on in Dublin next week, courtesy of the Scottish National Opera who are performing in the Grand Canal Theatre from Tuesday to Saturday.

If you've never sampled opera -- an "exotic and irrational entertainment" as described by Dr Samuel Johnson -- then Rigoletto is the one for you.

It scores in every department. The story has an edge that resonates down the years. It's based on a play by Victor Hugo that was an attack on French royalty, and a result was banned by the censor, until Verdi switched the action from Paris to Italy, and substituted an anonymous and fictitious duke for the king.

The Rigoletto of the title is the fixer for this powerful man who arranges female company for him. There's light and shade to this character -- a hunchback and widower who's nominally the court jester -- for also in the mix is the fact that he has a young daughter he's desperate to protect.

And while the action is moving swiftly along through a series of assignations and plots, the musical accompaniment is spellbinding.

Highlights include the sensuous love song 'Caro Nome' from Rigoletto's daughter, Gilda. There's the unforgettable 'La Donna è mobile' as well and, as a pièce-de-resistance, there's possibly the greatest quartet in all of opera 'Bella figlia dell'amore' with Rigoletto and Gilda looking into the shebeen where the duke is going through his chat-up routine with the latest of his targets.

A racy plot, magical music, Rigoletto is what opera is all about.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30am each Saturday morning.

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