ENO’s Rigoletto Exposes Victorian Morality’s Darker Side

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Rigoletto: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera/Graeme Jenkins (conductor, London Coliseum, London, 13.2.2014. (JPr)

Rigoletto (c) ENO & Alastair Muir
Rigoletto (c) ENO & Alastair Muir

Rigoletto: Quinn Kelsey
Duke of Mantua: Barry Banks
Gilda: Anna Christy
Sparafucile: Peter Rose
Maddalena: Justina Gringyte
Monterone: David Stout
Marullo: George Humphreys
Borsa: Anthony Gregory
Ceprano: Barnaby Rea
Giovanna: Diana Montague

Director: Christopher Alden
Designer: Michael Levine
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Translator: James Fenton

Verdi’s Rigoletto can work dramatically without sets or costumes. So it can survive almost everything and will endure Christopher Alden’s revisionist staging that had its moments and ended well but did not leave me wanting to see it again anytime soon. Hopefully the sets for Jonathan Miller’s cult Mafia version of the opera have not been broken down after their valiant 30 years in the repertory because there might be some clamouring for them to be used again, sooner or later. I suspect it was the success of that production that prevented ENO staging Michael Mayer’s recent well-received ‘Rat Pack Rigoletto’ for The Met that has the Duke portrayed as a Frank Sinatra figure. Sadly, probably this was deemed too close to Dr Miller’s concept – at least in the short term?  I have mentioned that that production lasted for three decades but this new Rigoletto has already been around for half that time. It was first put on in 2000 for Chicago’s Lyric Opera, disparaged and quickly abandoned, only to resurface in 2011 when the Canadian Opera Company resurrected Alden’s staging and English National Opera also decided to use it.

At least in the programme there is a ‘Director’s Note’ to tell you all you need to know about what Alden and his designer were thinking: ‘In this production, instead of moving from one naturalistic locale to the next. Michael Levine and I are placing all the events of Rigoletto in what we call “the gaming room”, where the men retire after dinner to smoke and drink, read their papers, and play games of power, control and domination. The room represents both sides of Rigoletto’s life, the workplace and the home. The Duke, a personification of unbounded libido, rules there. The trump card he holds over the men of the court is that at any moment, in full view and fully within his feudal rights, he could seduce their women and humiliate them in the process.’

The curtain rises on perhaps the finest set I have ever seen at the London Coliseum. We are in a solid three-dimensional mid-eighteenth century oak-panelled Victorian gentleman’s club with its ornate fireplace, leather sofas and wooden chairs, lamps, palms, Persian rugs and hint of cigar smoke. Basically we see nothing else for the opera’s two hours and the chorus and principals remain onstage most of the time too. At times an opaque curtain/veil is pulled across the front of the stage to isolate Rigoletto – probably the club’s major-domo – in his chair stage left (with occasionally other characters). This allows for the furniture to be rearranged or cleared but only serves to interrupt the music: the delay between the first and second scenes of Act I seemed interminable. When he is not involved Rigoletto is often shown oblivious to what else is happening and perhaps what we are seeing is supposed to be the a kaleidoscope of dreams from a distraught father reliving his daughter’s death. There is no attempt is to show us the secluded house Rigoletto shares with Gilda and her companion, Giovanna, or Sparafucile’s inn. The plotting of the Duke’s death is shown as nothing more than an after-dinner murder mystery entertainment for which the Duke puts on a breastplate and brandishes a sword that is almost as big as himself. The storm music whips the watching ‘members’ into a frenzy and there is an orgy, but then the stage completely clears to leave Gilda lying under a white sheet scattered with rose petals. This was a haunting image and provided an affecting finale to the opera and there was more drama and emotion in these few minutes than all the rest of the evening.

Similarly to Kaspar Holten’s new Don Giovanni for the Royal Opera, Alden is exploring the rampant misogyny of the Victorian era: the men, despite this fear of female sexuality that was enhanced by their segregated education, had high morals in public but lower ones in private and any woman – especially servants and other people’s wives or daughters – were there to be preyed upon, abused and discarded. In this sense a gentlemen’s club setting is appropriate to Rigoletto with all its debauchery because it has no female chorus and could be said, itself, to repress the role of women. To be truthful, although this Alden version starts – and ends – well it makes little dramatic sense anywhere else. I am not urging realism, just that there is more to Rigoletto than social commentary. I haven’t even begun to discuss – and will not – other curiosities such why Monterone’s daughter (whom the Duke rapes) is shown as a demented dancer; or why Giovanna, who always seems to be about, might be Gilda’s mother and/or a procuress for the ‘gentlemen’; or the sadistic treatment of Monterone who is lynched onstage and left hanging for most of the final act.

If any of this intrigues you then I urge you to go and see Alden’s Rigoletto and make up your own mind because it showcases one of the finest performance of Verdi’s jester that you are ever likely to see – and hear – from Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey. He is rough, tough, shambling but very paternal. For those of an older generation his sympathetic performance is reminiscent of Charles Laughton’s creation of another Victor Hugo character on film, the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Kelsey transcends Verdi’s fearsome high lying music with conversational ease.

The chorus sounded fine and the minor roles are taken well by a roster of mostly British talent, with Lithuanian mezzo Justina Gringyte as a suitably sultry Maddalena. The best of the rest was Peter Rose’s barrel-shaped and extravagantly bearded Sparafucile with rumbling bass notes as deep as some slate caves I recently visited in Wales. Anna Christy’s Gilda is a work-in-progress and was carefully nurtured through ‘Caro nome’ by her conductor Graeme Jenkins. She has a certain naivety and innocence and gets all her notes – perhaps later in the run Ms Christy will be able to make the audience really care about Gilda’s plight.

The unfortunate Barry Banks was the Duke who I suspect was a victim of Alden’s ironic ‘take’ on the libidinous character. At Covent Garden they wanted someone like George Clooney for Don Giovanni and hired a Johnny Depp lookalike. Here where the libretto calls for Depp we had the Duke depicted as the ancestor of Charlie Drake – for those older readers – or Simply Red singer Mick Hucknall for those a little younger. In his underwear he looked absolutely ridiculous and I suspect that was his director’s intention as suggested in his ‘note’ above: a man of inherited power and wealth can do what wants regardless of how unprepossessing he looks. His voice was not up to the task either despite some solid top notes one of which he held at the end of ‘La donna è mobile’ (James Fenton’s prosaic translation has it as ‘Women are changeable’) for so long hoping to generate some applause that never materialised. Banks acted energetically but sounded more like a comprimario tenor and I wonder whether casting like this was another reason Edward Gardner decided to announce – rather unexpectedly recently – that he was stepping down as ENO’s music director.

The ENO Orchestra are very reliable and Verdi’s music was in safe hands but Graeme Jenkins over-indulged his singers and simply accompanied them at the expense of forward momentum and dramatic tension.

Jim Pritchard

Rigoletto performances continue until 14 March – for further information visit www.eno.org.