Barren and Bleak Rigoletto Fails to Overwhelm

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Verdi Rigoletto:  Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich, conductor: Fabio Luisi, Zurich Opera, Zurich. 3.2.12 (JR)

Duke of Mantua: Saimir Pirgu
Rigoletto: Quinn Kelsey
Gilda: Aleksandra Kurzak
Sparafucile: Christof Fischesser
Maddalena: Judith Schmid
Giovanna: Julia Riley
Count of Monterone: Valeriy Murga
Marullo: Cheyne Davidson
Borsa: Dmitry Ivanchey
Countess of Ceprano: Chloe Chavanon


Director: Tatjana Gürbaca
Sets and Lighting: Klaus Grünberg
Costumes: Silke Willrett
Chorus: Ernst Raffelsberger



I do feel sorry for youngsters starting out to discover operas today. Gone are the sumptuous sets, pretty costumes and historically-correct productions; in have come bleak, modern, contemporary productions which may serve to focus attention on the music but do little to gladden the spirit. Admittedly, this is Verdi’s grimmest opera but merriment and colour can amuse the onlooker even in this opera from time to time. Newcomers would have had difficulty working out Rigoletto’s occupation, his place of work (no inkling of a Ducal Palace), his place of abode, no ladder, no blindfold (the abductors use pepper spray), no riverside inn for the last Act.

When I read that producer Tajana Gürbaca attended master-classes with Ruth Berghaus, I feared the worst. It was Berghaus who managed to produce the last Act of Rosenkavalier in Frankfurt, many years ago, as a holocaust vision. Now based in Mainz, Gürbaca was much less controversial with this production of Rigoletto. The curtain goes up to reveal a very large table, covered with a white sheet and black chairs all round. The rest of the stage and the backdrop are as black as night. That “set” does not change for the entire opera. All one can say is that one is forced to focus on the voices, on the wondrous score and perhaps consider the conflict between good and evil which occurs throughout the opera. On a positive note, Gürbaca does not add anything which is out of place. It does mean that the menacing dark nature of the opera is well caught; the chorus glides eerily on and off stage at various stages, often wearing comical paper golden crowns, looking like a middle-aged gang of paedophiles (chorus members are rarely young, and Gilda is portrayed at the beginning of the opera as a teenager). The chorus are often on stage, silent, watching the goings on, in support of their master, the Duke.

There is an element of “Bunga Bunga” in Act 1, but no pointers to Italian politicians; the main focus is on Gilda’s release from her authoritarian father to the delights of seeking love in the adult world. When lured by the Duke by a pretty pink skirt and some jewels, she is not initially scared by the mob abducting her and even waves a cheery goodbye to the audience before becoming anxious of the mob’s real intent.

Vocally, it’s a mixed bag. Pirgu as the Duke is a strong Eastern European tenor, firm of tone and volume, hits all the top notes, but there is no lyricism, no beauty, little character and no great acting skills. Kurzak as Gilda is pure, angelic and sweet-toned, but too many high notes before the Interval were approximate; she improved as she went along. Quinn Kelsey, a BBC Singer of the World contestant in 2005, hails from Hawaii, and sang a commendable but rather restrained pony-tailed Rigoletto. Prize for best actress goes to Brit Julia Riley as the bubble gum-chewing cleaning lady (maid) Giovanna. Christof Fischesser was excellent as the sonorous hired assassin Sparafucile. Cheyne Davidson as Marullo and Valerij Murga as Monterone were somewhat under-powered.

Fabio Luisi was in the pit, equally at home with the taut dramatic sections and the lighter sprightly passages where the chorus has to watch him more intently. I would liked more volume, especially from the timpani, at times. The orchestra was however on good form, especially the solo cello.

Not a Rigoletto for beginners then, and regular opera-goers will have had images of many other productions in their minds as they watched.

John Rhodes