Verdi Emerges from Wagnerian Shadows in Memorable Concert

Verdi, Rigoletto (concert performance): Soloists, London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra /  Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 15.9.2013. (JPr)

Dimitri Platanias (Rigoletto)
Desirée Rancatore (Gilda)
Saimir Pirgu (Duke of Mantua)
Gábor Bretz (Sparafucile)
Julien Dran (Matteo Borsa)
Jean-Luc Ballestra (Marullo)
Josè Maria Lo Monaco (Maddalena)
Madeleine Shaw (Giovanna)
Matthew Hargreaves (Count Ceprano / Usher)
Susana Gaspar (Countess Ceprano / Page)
Wojtek Smilek (Count Monterone)

As the recent BBC Proms season seems to have mostly forgotten, this year is the bicentenary of Verdi’s birth and not just Wagner’s. There were seven concert performances of full Wagner operas during the Royal Albert Hall season but not one by Verdi. Why not? A week after the Proms have ended – and for the start of their new season – the London Symphony Orchestra have made amends with a concert performance of Rigoletto that was possibly the best of this type of evening I have ever been at.

I was left wondering at the Proms who needs a stage director for these sort of things – well perhaps they do because of the need to get the singers in front of the microphones for the broadcast – but though there was one named there they often contributed little more than putting the singers in the right places at the right time. Apparently here nobody was listed as responsible for what we saw; yet despite everything being restricted to a small area across the platform in front of the conductor – and with everyone in formal evening wear – there was drama more intense from the natural performances of all the experienced singers than in a number of fully-staged Rigolettos I have seen. It was left mainly to just the voices and the excellence of the musicians to bring this Verdi alive and it all worked splendidly … memorably. It was all the more amazing because although the orchestra and conductor had been in residence for four weeks at the recent Aix-en-Provence Festival with Rigoletto, only a quartet of singers – in more minor roles – came to the Barbican from those performances.

Verdi composed for the masses and often used what he wrote to lampoon the power-trips of contemporary rulers. Rigoletto is based on Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse that was about a king (the historical François I of France) who was represented as an immoral and cynical womanizer. The original story had the trouble with censors in France (not surprisingly) – and Verdi’s own problems were with the Austrian authorities who controlled most of Northern Italy – so the opera underwent several revisions by the librettist Francesco Maria Piave and the composer himself before its first performance on 11th March 1851. So they left us with 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 now offend anyone!) A bedroom scene for the Duke and Gilda was taken out and also the Sparafucile inn scene 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. Some of Hugo’s original dialogue remains from the play including the words to the opera’s most famous aria, ‘La donna è mobile’. The première was a success and Rigoletto has remained hugely popular ever since.

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. It 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, as well as illustrating the grief of the bereaved father which Verdi’s fairly abrupt ending to Act III never, in my opinion, lets us fully experience. However, as George Hall’s programme note concluded, ‘It remains a powerful example of Verdi’s early maturity – an opera in which innocence is set against cynicism and love is in conflict with the implacable spirit of vengeance, centred on the paradoxical yet fascinating figure of Rigoletto himself.’

I am probably not alone in commenting from time to time that there are no great Verdi voices anymore and ‘it is not like the old days’. Well … all credit to the LSO for fielding such a wonderful ensemble, even though it was a very cosmopolitan one with British singers (Madeleine Shaw and Matthew Hargreaves) only in very tiny roles.

The young Albanian tenor, Saimir Pirgu, was the Duke and portrayed him as a bit of a charmer whose believes that with his money and power he get the right to have any women he wants. Pirgu has a strong stage presence, a bright forthright sound and a beautiful lyric quality from a seemingly sound technique. Italian soprano Desirée Rancatore was the demure, innocent Gilda, yet never looked much like that in her elegant evening gowns! She overcame some early nerves for a stunning – if hand waving – performance that fully justified why she has been singing this technically difficult coloratura role throughout the world. She has a totally secure top to her voice with the stratospheric notes ringing true and full of emotive power during ‘Caro nome’ and elsewhere. Gilda’s duets with the Duke and her father worked wonderfully and were full of the necessary emotions. In the dying, and ultimately, death scene – and despite having to stand – Rancatore brought Gilda’s final feelings brilliantly to life.

The Greek baritone Dimitri Platanias looks like a huge pit-bull but sang here like a Verdi ‘god’. His Covent Garden debut was as Rigoletto and this was broadcast to cinemas worldwide. As in that David McVicar production, there his Rigoletto is clearly a ‘victim’ from the opera’s beginning to its end and in his outbursts he rails against the injustices he feels he is suffering from, as well as, the curse of Count Monterone on him and the Duke because of the latter’s violation of his daughter. His acting as before was emotionally engaging and compelling throughout and despite some enthusiastic applause interrupting his performance from time to time he never once stepped out of character, always remaining admirably focussed on the ensuing drama. His Act II aria ‘Cortigiani, vil razza dannata’ and duet ‘Sì! Vendetta, tremenda vendetta!’ were obvious highlights and even though some might quibble that Platanias lacks a true Verdian legato, his is such a very powerful – and instinctive – performance that this does not matter whatsoever.

Hungarian bass Gábor Bretz brought suitable menacing, sepulchral tones to Sparafucile and Polish bass Wojtek Smilek cut through Verdi’s loud orchestration to give full value to his cursing: among the smallest roles French baritone Jean-Luc Ballestra made a good impression as Marullo. The men of the Simon Halsey- directed London Symphony Chorus sang out sturdily but were just a little too refined during their contributions lacking the attack of a true opera chorus has. If there was any other weak link it was possibly Italian mezzo Josè Maria Lo Monaco as Maddalena, her rather contralto-like hollow tones didn’t sound right for the earthy ‘tart with the heart’ who inspires Gilda’s demise, even though she looked the genuine article.

For me Gianandrea Noseda has appeared rather dour in the past but this was the first time I have seen him conduct an opera and how refreshing it was to see someone so thoroughly enjoying himself and celebrating the achievements of those around him. The orchestral playing was passionate, yet disciplined, and the opera sped along due to Noseda’s brisk tempi and propulsive rhythms. At times the sheer volume he generated threatened to totally overwhelm his singers but he got the balance just right for most of the performance.

What a perfect tribute to Verdi – and an equally impressive start to the LSO’s new season!

Jim Pritchard


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