Rigoletto by Satellite

ItalyItaly   Verdi, Rigoletto: (from London via satellite),Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), screened at the cinema piccolissimo, Ciampino, 17.3.2012 (JB)

Staging: David McVicar (2001), rehearsed by Leah Hausman
Sets: Michael Vale
Costumes: Tanya McCallin

Rigoletto: Dimitri Platanias
Gilda: Ekaterina Siurina
Duke of Mantova: Vittorio Grigolo
Sparafucile: Matthew Rose
Count Monterone: Gianfranco Montresor
Maddalena: Christine Rice

Stravinsky considered Rigoletto to be Verdi’s finest achievement. So do I. I am only sorry that Stravinsky is no longer around and I cannot check whether he arrived at that prestigious vote for the same reasons as I did. What follows is my own rationale.

Verdi had already musically created an unforgettable character in the person of Lady Macbeth, largely as a direct result of experiencing the performance of the great tragedienne, Adelaide Ristori, in the Shakespeare play. The other characters in Verdi’s Macbeth are pretty standard, cardboard operatic creations; even the chorus of witches are only convincing within their stagey context – more laughable than believable.

With Rigoletto even the minor characters –Sparafucile, Monterone, Maddalena- are perfect, complete and compelling musical creations. On reading Victor Hugo’s play, Le Roi s’amuse  Verdi had another of those epiphany moments: he instructed his librettist, Piave, to stick to Hugo’s detail as closely as possible and using only two staves he began writing the opera as fast as he could. (That manuscript only came to light in 1941, but remains probably the most valuable document in Verdi scholarship.) In the original manuscript, Verdi uses Hugo’s locations and characters for Act One, but the names and locations now familiar to us for the rest of the opera, the change having been partly imposed by the Italian censors. There is no mistaking that name changes withstanding, Hugo’s original cast are instantly recognisable.  Hugo is on record saying that Verdi is more convincing than he had been himself in his original play.

Conviction is the name of the game here. And Verdi is a master of it. When the French censors took Hugo’s play off the stage, the playwright published a (now famous) defence of his work.  This remained a guiding document during Verdi’s composition. Here is Hugo defending his creation of the jester protagonist (I have changed only Hugo’s names for Verdi’s): Rigoletto is deformed. Rigoletto is sick. Rigoletto is a court jester –a triple misfortune, which makes him evil. Rigoletto hates the Duke because he is a Duke, the nobles because they are nobles, his fellow men in general because they have no humps on their backs. His sole pastime is to set the nobles against the Duke, letting the weakest go to the wall.

What a catalogue! Deformity, sickness, jester, misfortune, evil, jealousy, hatred, wrath. Verdi ticks them all in musical terms. And Greek baritone Dimitri Platanias, making his debut at the ROH, ticks most of them too. But every villain has his Achilles’ heel and Rigoletto’s is his vulnerability, most painfully witnessed in his possessive love of his daughter. It almost comes as a relief to Verdi and to his audiences when the composer shines his torch into this corner of Rigoletto’s character. Dimitri Platanias is less forthcoming on this unexpected, more tender side of the jester. It is as though he cannot let go of the obsessive jealousy which so thoroughly defines him. But this is a blemish of what is a remarkably impressive and chilling performance from a thrilling singer. For my own taste, I would have liked Cortigiani delivered with a little more of the pain which Verdi thoughtfully provides and less of the wrath, but Si, vendetta was perfect in its menacing fanaticism.

I saw this performance directly via satellite, in the satellite town of Ciampino, best known as the home to Rome’s second airport, at the cinema piccolissimo, which with a seating capacity of sixty-seven, must be among the smallest cinemas in the world. And with a disproportionately gigantic screen. The seats are comfortable and the experience is overwhelming.

The video projection and the sound were superb. You get taken right into the action in this situation. The characters on the screen are bigger and somehow more real than those in the audience. The close-ups show you more than you might want to see, such as the sweat streaking the makeup of the singers. But Verdi would have applauded that. You find yourself involuntarily involved in the drama.

It is a new way to see opera. And I became increasingly convinced that it might even be a better one. Claudio Riva, the friendly owner of the piccolissimo, has gathered together a group of opera enthusiasts for these transmissions, a small but select group who break into applause at appropriate moments of the show. Please don’t boo the tenor, announced Mr Riva at the start of the show, His parents are in the audience. (The atmosphere really was like those saloons in the Westerns of the fifties where the notice on the piano said, Don’t shoot the pianist; he’s doing his best.

At the piccolissimo’s bar at the interval, Mr Grigolo senior told me that his son began his career when he was just a boy, as the lead soloist in the Sistine Chapel Choir. What better place to learn about that mix of angel and devil which makes up the complex character of the Duke of Mantova? Not, I am sure, that the Vatican wittingly provide instruction in such an important subject. From a very early age, young Vittorio’s heart was set on becoming an heroic operatic tenor. And he has the right attributes for it too. The gods have smiled down on him. He looks like a teenage, very athletic, matinee idol, though his father tells me he is thirty five. That ambitious heart is gloriously audible in his golden singing. And yes, he is completely in the role. This is his fourth part for the ROH, where he has become something of a divo.

Ekaterina Siurina has all the right vocal makeup for Gilda. Most Gildas deliver on the innocence and so does Siurina but she also delivers on the pain. Verdi gives us in music an innocent young woman to whom maturity costs agony. Every step of this painful journey has been carefully measured by Ekaterina Siurina, making her one of the most impressive Gildas on today’s scene. She sounded more comfortable in her scenes with the Duke than with her father. But this is probably because Grigolo makes for an easier vocal partner than Platanias.

Matthew Rose was wonderfully nasty as Sparafucile with clear, ringing bass tones and Gianfranco Montresor got the right cutting edge in Monterone’s curse. I found Christine Rice’s notes too lightweight for the Quartet, the only piece in which Maddalena participates, but her legs are indeed beautiful and Vittorio Grigolo looked as though he was enjoying himself making love to one of them in a deliciously nonchalant La Donn’ è mobile.

The men’s chorus of the ROH were not sufficiently focused in the first act conspiracy chorus, resulting in inaccuracies in pitch and rhythm. And to my ear, they fell short again in their scene with Rigoletto in the second act.

David McVicar’s 2001 staging (rehearsed here by Leah Hausman) has come in for criticism for the nudity in the first scene. Well, debauchery was no doubt rampant at the Mantova court, but in this opening scene, Verdi made clever enough use of the off-stage band to convince us of the false gaiety of that institution. All the nude models of both sexes were glamorous, but was this the right place for them? Elsewhere, the staging was in excellent taste with due respect to the composer’s provisions, and especially in the split scenes of the first and third acts.

In an interval interview, John Eliot Gardiner said that Verdi requires the orchestra to perform with a variety of musical energies and that these energies rise and diminish to point up the drama. His baton realized beautifully all this excellent detail, as did his considerate accompaniment of the singers.

Jack Buckley