Sweden Verdi, Rigoletto: Soloists, Royal Swedish Opera Male Chorus and Orchestra / Lionel Bringuier (conductor). Royal Swedish Opera, Stockholm 24.11.2018. (GF)
Direction – Sofia Jupither
Scenography – Erlend Birkeland
Costumes and masks – Maria Geber
Lighting design – Ellen Ruge
Dramaturge – Katarina Aronsson
Duke of Mantua – Leonardo Capalbo
Rigoletto – Karl-Magnus Fredriksson
Gilda – Ida Falk Winland
Sparafucile – John Erik Eleby
Maddalena – Katarina Leoson
Giovanna – Susann Végh
Count of Monterone – Kristian Flor
Marullo – Anton Eriksson
Borsa – Jihan Shin
Count of Ceprano – Jens Persson
Countess of Ceprano – Emma Vetter
The action in Victor Hugo’s five-act play Le Roi s’amuse, the model for Rigoletto, takes place in Paris in the 1520s during the reign of François I, who seems to have been a notorious womanizer. Through the court jester Triboulet, also an historical character, Hugo attacks the contemporary society in such harsh words that the play, upon the first performance in 1832 was banned by the government and only appeared again fifty years later. When Francesco Maria Piave and Verdi adapted the play for their upcoming opera in the early 1850s, they were forced by the Censorship of the Austrian authorities in Venice to transport the action from Paris to Mantua and a fictional Duke. Criticising the royalties – and other bigwigs – was a delicate issue in those days (and actually it still is, to this very day). The #MeToo movement has shown that abuse of power and sexual harassment still exist, and thus Hugo’s story is just as topical now as it was in the 16th century. Much water has since flown under the Pont Notre-Dame and the other 36 bridges that cross the Seine, the city has expanded, transportation has developed, fashion has changed but people’s basic behaviour is still governed by primitive carnal desires that all-too-often abuse moral laws. This makes Rigoletto timeless and Sofia Jupither and her team have designed a production that is very down-to-earth: nothing extravagant in the opening party scene, sparse sets throughout, every-day clothes. The most stylish character is John Erik Eleby’s impeccably dressed assassin Sparafucile in black leather coat and noble bearing. He happens to be a foreigner, from Burgundy!
The story is well known: Rigoletto, the jester, hates his master, the Duke, but is forced to support him in his evil play with his subjects. They harass the old Count of Monterone, whose daughter the Duke has seduced and Monterone pronounces a curse on them. Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda has fallen in love with a poor student, who is the Duke in disguise. She is abducted by a group of courtiers taking revenge on the jester and brought to the Duke’s palace, where he seduces her. Rigoletto hires the murderer Sparafucile to kill the Duke, but Sparafucile’s sister, who likes the Duke, talks him into killing the first person who comes to their house. This happens to be Gilda, and when Rigoletto at midnight comes to collect his victim he hears the Duke singing. In despair, he tears open the sack which is supposed to contain his corpse – only to find Gilda dying. Monterone’s curse is fulfilled.
The party scene in the first act can be staged as a lascivious bacchanal, as for instance on the DVD with Gruberová, Pavarotti and Wixell. Not so here. There is some groping and pawing, but basically it is a stylised show of women being exposed before the eager guests. The meeting in the alley between Rigoletto and Sparafucile is played on a narrow strip at the front of the stage, with a wall in the background. This wall belongs to the house where Rigoletto lives and the next scene is played in the street. When we return to the party hall after Gilda’s abduction everything is in disorder, with furniture turned over as though there had been a true rave-up. Rigoletto confronts the courtiers, is humiliated and decides to take revenge on the Duke. The last act takes place outside the entrance of Sparafucile’s shabby tavern. We get a glimpse of the interior and when Gilda arrives she is treated kindly by the assassin and his sister. Then they close the door and the murder is committed without eyewitnesses. It is like an everyday news roundup and not an eye-catching, sensation-seeking tabloid scoop. The occurrences are horrible enough without extra highlighting, and this is the real strength of this production. Sofia Jupither, who made a superb debut production of Richard Strauss’s Salome five years ago, trusts the capacities of the drama itself, as well as the acting abilities of her cast, while avoiding extra frills. Full marks for that!
The drama is dark, the music is well-known and beautiful and this combination further enhances the cruelty of the story. But there are also lighter moments: the father-daughter relationship, the budding romance between Gilda and the student (the Duke), which is sincere on her part and, perhaps, on his at first as well. Even after she has witnessed his unfaithfulness in the celebrated quartet, she is still so enamoured that she deliberately sacrifices her life to save his. Their scene towards the end of the first act is permeated by youthful passion, whereas the preceding Rigoletto-Gilda scene, in which his anxiety and concern are so graphically depicted, is musically deeper.
Vocally and scenically this production is also a real hit. The three main characters are ideally cast. Leonardo Capalbo is the personification of the Duke: handsome, sensitive, elegant and dashing but also temperamental and cynically complacent – and he sings like a god with beautiful tone, exquisite nuances, tossing off his top notes with brilliance and glow. ‘La donna è mobile’ is sung with seductive rubatos and becoming nonchalance. Ida Falk Winland’s Gilda is shy, innocent and introspective. Even ‘Caro nome’ is primarily a soft love song and she doesn’t indulge in the stratospheric coloratura at the end, but sings it true to the prevailing mood. She is marvellous also in the duet with the Duke, the scene with Rigoletto in the second act and, not least, in the final scene, where ‘Lassù in cielo’ is ethereal. Karl-Magnus Fredriksson has been a pillar of strength at the Royal Opera for twenty years and his readings of a great number of important roles have become increasingly multi-faceted, both vocally and in terms of expressive acting. Basically a lyrical baritone – he is a prominent singer of art songs – he has also the capacity to encompass a tragic-dramatic role like Rigoletto, not through thunderous fortes and histrionics but by virtue of expressive word-painting and restrained intensity. His ‘Cortigiani’ in the second act was not only a roar of anger and frustration but also a prayer, delivered with suppressed emotion. In that respect he reminded me of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (one of his teachers) in the same role. I have heard and seen many great Rigolettos through the years but few have touched me as deeply as this one.
In smaller roles John Erik Eleby (Sparafucile), Katarina Leoson (Maddalena) and Susann Végh (Giovanna) made their marks as well as the rest of the cast, and the Royal Orchestra delivered idiomatic Verdi playing under the youthful and flexible Lionel Bringuier. The whole production is a real treat.