United Kingdom Verdi, Rigoletto: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of Royal Opera / John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 30.3.2012. (JPr)
Verdi wrote for the masses and often lampooned the power-trips of contemporary rulers. Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse on which Rigoletto is based was about a king (the historical François I of France) who was shown as an immoral and cynical womanizer. The opera fell foul of the censors in France and before the opera’s first performance on 11th March 1851 it underwent a number of revisions by the librettist Francesco Maria Piave and Verdi himself. In the end agreement was reached to set the opera’s action in a duchy of France or Italy with the characters renamed. So this is why we now have the Duke who rules over Mantua and belongs to the Gonzaga family. (The Gonzagas barely survived into the eighteenth century and so this could not offend anyone.) A scene with the Duke in Gilda’s bedroom was taken out and also his visit to Sparafucile’s inn was rewritten. The hunchback originally named ‘Triboulet’ (and in Verdi’s Italianized version, ‘Triboletto’) became ‘Rigoletto’ (from the French rigolo meaning amusing or funny) and the whole opera was soon called after him. Fortunately, some dialogue was retained directly from the play including the words to the opera’s most famous aria, ‘La donna è mobile’. The first performance was a success and the opera has remained hugely popular ever since. In 1855 when Verdi was asked which of his operas he liked most he named Rigoletto as his best and it is easy to understand why that was so then.
Here we have the juxtaposition of the sleazy Duke’s carefree arias ‘Questa o quella’ and ‘La donna è mobile’ with intensely emotional duets between a father and his daughter, Gilda, who is torn between the two men in her life, after falling in love with the disguised Duke. The plot is unremittingly grim, but nevertheless compelling. The tragedy that befalls the protective father and, more especially, his innocent child is signalled very early on, but we never lose interest in what fate has in store for them. In fact, even the prelude with its dark colours and doom-laden aspects immediately makes it clear that there is a fearsome drama ahead. It also illustrates the grief of the bereaved father – which Verdi’s fairly abrupt ending to Act III never lets us fully experience. (This comment makes nonsense of my recent assertion that these hasty endings only seem to happen in musicals!)
The best news was that David McVicar returned to revive his 2001 production. His first scene shows us a morally corrupt and perverted society; we see the simulation of all manners of sexual encounters, clothed and unclothed, men with men, women with women – imagine it and he shows it somewhere on stage! McVicar’s tutelage – rather than of a revival director – ensures all concerned set about their raunchiness with gusto rather than descending into the prudery of ‘Carry On Coupling’ territory. There is much initial naked flesh but when costumes are actually worn Tanya McCallin’s designs are generally authentic – with gowns for women and jerkins, doublet, hose and codpieces for the men – having taken their inspiration from the paintings of Titian and Velásquez. The full-page picture of a black-looking beetle in the programme is reflected in Rigoletto’s leathery black court outfit, headpiece and the sticks he hobbles about with. After this scene is over the drama becomes indistinguishable from any other Rigoletto given a period setting and concentrates on the more intimate moments between the characters. We are clearly in Machiavelli’s Italy and Michael Vale’s single, ingenious, slightly creaky set depicts everything within its two levels, adequately – and often a little better than that – from the Duke’s palace to Sparafucile’s inn.
The burly Dimitri Platanias made his Royal Opera House debut as Rigoletto and is clearly a ‘victim’ from the beginning to the end of the opera. It must be McVicar’s idea that there is never any real sense that he is just getting his ‘just desserts’ for the ridicule he has handed out to members of the Duke’s court. His acting was emotionally engaging and compelling throughout and in his alternative simple brown costume – and scurrying up the stairs of his house in Act I Scene 2 – he reminded me strongly of another of Victor Hugo’s characters, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Rigoletto’s Act II ‘Sì! Vendetta, tremenda vendetta!’ with Gilda was suitable plaintive but Platanias lacks – at present – a true Verdian legato and so singing Alberich cannot be far away. Nevertheless, I thought overall it was a very powerful performance and a significant house debut.
Russian soprano Ekaterina Siurina returns as the demure, innocent Gilda, her waif-like passivity is a complete contrast to the bullishness of Platanias’s Rigoletto She has a secure top, a pure and beautifully controlled – if slightly steely – voice. Like most of the principals in this performance – she more than holds her own in big solo moments, as well as, in ensembles like the Quartet. Her Act I ‘Caro nome’ was very much the outpourings of an enraptured young girl expressing the joy of first love’ – and not the standalone showpiece aria it can sometimes be.
Much of the pre-publicity for this revival centred on the Royal Opera role debut of Vittorio Grigolo as the Duke trailing glowing reviews from his previous Covent Garden appearances. He has a bright forthright sound and can soften his tone for some light and shade but as the evening went on, I began to find his singing a bit too manufactured and I heard less and less ‘heart’ in it. I possibly wasn’t the only one because whilst his famous arias gained something of an ovation it was not as much as I am sure he was expecting. I accept there are no real redeemable features to the character of the Duke but he made him seem less the lusty ruler and more like a well-heeled Oxbridge student on a boozy night out. With flailing arms and slight gawky demeanour Grigolo needs handling with care if he is not to follow the same career path as Villazón.
Matthew Rose was a suitably menacing Sparafucile but Gianfranco Montresor disappointed as Monterone, his voice failing to push his curse through Verdi’s loud orchestration. The always reliable Christine Rice was Maddalena, the earthy ‘tart with the heart’ who inspires Gilda’s demise. Among the even smaller roles Chinese baritone – and Jette Parker Young Artist – Zheng Zhong Zhou made a strong impression as Marullo. The chorus sang out in their usual sturdy fashion and – probably under David McVicar’s guidance due to the forthcoming live cinema broadcast – individually appeared to act with impeccable commitment. None of them stepped out of character until leaving the stage.
It was dispiriting to hear members of the Royal Opera House orchestra’s brass section play so unevenly during that glowering opening – so the least said about that the better – though later there much clarity and some particularly refined moments for cello and oboe during John Eliot Gardiner’s intermittently chamber-like accompaniment. I later began to wonder if the conductor – a Baroque specialist – is rather temperamentally unsuited to such hot-blooded music. There seemed an unresolvable tension between the chorus and principals who were trying to slow the music down and Maestro Gardiner who rushed headlong through it such that the running time was at least 10 minutes shorter than advertised.
For information about the Rigoletto live cinema broadcast on 17 April and for information regarding further broadcasts or Royal Opera House performances visit http://cinema.roh.org.uk/ or www.roh.org.uk.