Director Elisabetta Brusa uses the ideas of Pier Luigi Samaritani to breathe new life and add new plot angles to the age-old Rigoletto The classics never lose their appeal, especially one that was ahead of its time when it began. Rigoletto, a three-act opus by Giuseppe Verdi, is a classic example. And some of the showgoers at the Hong Kong Arts Festival will get to see it from March 7-11 at the Grand Theatre of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre when Teatro Regio di Parma theatre group from Italy brings in its own Verdi: Rigoletto performance. The opus has been performed in all major opera houses around the world, but what will make this performance remarkable is the stage settings and revamp based on the ideas of the late Pier Luigi Samaritani. Well known as a designer of opera productions and director, Samaritani was famous for his designs' heightened sense of realism. He had a vision for Rigoletto and wanted to make a production of it. He was dissatisfied with the contemporary interpretation of Rigoletto so he tracked down a copy of the original libretto (script) and studied the period and its costumes, with the hope of bringing back the true life of the classic. He staged a production in 1987 and in 1994 he wanted a revision. But he fell ill before he could finish his work. Director Elisabetta Brusa, who will be in town for the festival with the troupe and was one of Samaritani's pupils and assistant, said: 'I was with him before his death. He gave me the sketches of what he wanted to realise with the play. I went back to Parma and began to work alone. The feelings were very strong.' But there was nothing unusual in Samaritani's use of sketches to convey his thoughts. He was a man of few words. 'He didn't speak a lot, but he looked a lot. When he looked at you, he could relay the words. It could be very funny or terrible, but he didn't speak a lot. He drew. He spoke with the pencil, or the pen and paper.' The Italian libretto of Rigoletto was written by Verdi's long-time collaborator Francesco Maria Piave based on the French play Le roi s'amuse by Victor Hugo. It was first performed at La Fenice in Venice in 1851 - but not without a fight. The subject of Hugo's play, written in 1832, depicted the romantic escapades of a French king and censors of the time considered it insulting to the royal household. It was banned for decades after one performance. Verdi stumbled on the script when he was commissioned to write a play by La Fenice. He wanted to make his play based on this script but hit a brick wall with the Austro-Hungarian authorities. After much negotiating and mediation, the parties agreed that the action of the opus had to be moved from the royal court of France to the duchy of Mantua. Many characters had to be renamed and suggestive scenes had to be cut or altered. The character of the king has been replaced by a duke and the hunchback leading role Triboulet became Rigoletto (from French rigolo, meaning funny). All the hard work paid off, however. When it finally premiered it was met with great response and the duke's cynical aria, La donna e mobile was sung in the streets the next morning and it is still sung around the world today - even by the late Luciano Pavarotti. The duke is a libertine and Rigoletto is his jester, helping with the frivolous pursuits of his master. When he crosses the line to mock the husbands cuckolded by the duke and suggests persecuting them, he invites a curse on himself. It would be Rigoletto's daughter Gilda, whose existence has been kept secret for protection, who eventually pays the price by falling for the duke. This story of intense passion, karma and betrayal is familiar to many, but Samaritani wanted to change the setting of the second act to a Baroque theatre. One reason for the change, according to Brusa, was to quicken the pace in which Act One progresses to Act Two. But she also felt that there was another message behind it. 'He knew that he had very little time. He knew he wouldn't get out of hospital. It was his last greeting to life because he was a man who had always worked in theatre.' Brusa has furthered the drama by introducing symbolism. Rigoletto enters dressed in a clown-like outfit apt for the kind of man he is, but when the curse is spelt out to him, he takes off his hat and never wears it again. 'When Rigoletto takes off his hat, he becomes a human being. He experiences fear. Before, he had the power to be a bad man. He keeps the hat in his hands, but he's lost the amusement. The hat has made him a fool, a very big one,' Brusa said. She also changed the weapon that eventually kills Gilda to the duke's sword instead of assassin Sparafucile's knife. The director said that the fact that Gilda was killed by the sword of the man she had fallen for made it even more powerful. Brusa shows confidence and freedom in her handling of Rigoletto but it was not easy. When she was entrusted to continue Samaritani's vision she met with a lot of pressure. 'I was proud to be considered the person who could go on with his work. It's very strong for me but also difficult. I was me, not Samaritani, I tried to realise what he wanted,' she said. 'When I worked with him he let me be free. I made my work inside his work.' Ironically the sense of freedom was gone when Samaritani died because she was on her own, but she still wanted Samaritani to be proud. 'I wanted to make something people could love. And for the first time I was not so free because I wanted to think like he would,' she said. Luckily the freedom came back when Brusa was finally able to completely understand the scenes Samaritani left her with. 'They are scenes that he's left with us and they are perfect for stage production,' she said. The Teatro Regio di Parma's performance of Rigoletto in Hong Kong was billed by the Arts Festival Society as a 'totally Italian experience', with a full Italian cast and production team. Other than music conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, the orchestra is also all Italian. Brusa wants Hong Kong audiences to be prepared to enter the world of Verdi. 'I think they must arrive at the theatre feeling ready to participate, to get into the action. The play is without boundaries. The greatest theatre can speak to everyone - to the simple and the complex people. Verdi permits it and it's an art,' Brusa said.