Estonia Verdi Rigoletto. Soloists, Estonian National Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Jüri Alperten (conductor). Estonian National Opera, Tallinn 26.9.2013
Rigoletto – Jassi Zahharov
Gilda – Kadri Kipper
Duke of Mantua – Rame Lahaj
Sparafucile – Mart Laur
Maddalena – Stella Grigorian
Giovanna – Ülle Tundla
Count Monterone – Pavlo Balakin
Marullo – Aare Saal
Borsa – Andres Köster
Count Ceprano – Märt Jakobson
Countess Ceprano – Valentina Taluma
The Chief of Guards – Roman Chervinko
Page – Maris Liloson
Stage Director: Neeme Kuningas
Designer: Kustav-Agu Püüman
Lighting Master: Neeme Jöe
This production of Rigoletto was premiered at the Estonian National Opera on 9 November 2007 but I saw it three months earlier, on 11 August, at Dalhalla, the enormous outdoor arena in central Sweden, where the ENO was visiting company. It wasn’t quite identical. In Tallinn the change of scenes were operated by the turntable, at Dalhalla the scenery was fixed with three settings: the Duke’s palace in the middle, Rigoletto’s house to the right and Sparafucile’s dark and forbidding dwelling to the left and the characters had to move between these settings. But the impact was just as strong in both cases. Neeme Kuningas and his team have created a taut and wholly engaging production that unfolds mercilessly until the tragic end, where Rigoletto’s world is crushed. Sets and costumes are period but the impact of the performance and the masterly direction, where every character of some importance stands out as a person of flesh and blood, made it timeless. I was deeply impressed six years ago and seeing it again just increased my admiration. To find out more about my reactions in 2007 readers are referred to my previous review.
Only three of the singers, Aare Saal (Marullo), Valentina Taluma (Countess Ceprano) and Maris Liloson (Page) were retained from the Dalhalla performance. This being a kind of gala performance as part of the Verdi celebrations – Verdissimo – there were a couple of international guests in the cast. The Albanian tenor Rame Lahaj had the looks for the lecherous Duke, acted elegantly and he sang with ardour. E il sol dell’anima was glowing, Parmi veder ditto, he took La donna e mobile at a rather leisurely tempo, which is far more appealing than the record-breaking can belto variant some testosterone heroes prefer. This Duke has both brain and taste. In the quartet he added a spoonful of honey to the brilliance of his top notes to charm Maddalena, luxuriously cast with the Georgian world star Stella Grigorian. Oh, how I wish the role had been much bigger! The young innocent-looking Kadri Kipper was an almost ideal Gilda, whose singing in the long duet with Rigoletto and the scene with the Duke made hearts melt and everybody capitulated to her Caro nome.
Dominating his own opera was however Jassi Zahharov’s Rigoletto. He occasionally sounded a bit worn during the Gala concert the evening before, but when he arrayed himself in the jester’s outfit he was just magnificent. I have seen many great Rigolettos, even Ingvar Wixell at the height of his powers in the 1970s, but none that has touched the heartstrings the way Zahharov did. He is an excellent actor. It is a stereotyped phrase, I know, but ‘he was Rigoletto’: sneering when he mocked Monterone, shaken on his way home when he pondered over Monterone’s damnation, caring and tender-hearted when he met Gilda, furious in his hatred of the Duke, humble and despairing when he appealed to the courtiers. Thunderous anger, whispered sorrow – and all the nuances in between. No, it isn’t stereotyped. He was Rigoletto and at the curtain calls many minutes after the play was over he was still in the role.
Mart Laur was a demonic Sparafucile, Pavlo Balakin a defiant Monterone and Aare Saal, himself a Rigoletto, was a many-facetted Marullo. This is a production and a cast that the ENO can be proud of, but it is Jassi Zahharov’s full-size portrait of the title character, scenically and vocally, that will remain in my memory forever.