Despite an ailing Rigoletto there is much to relish at Opera Holland Park

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Opera Holland Park 2023 [1] – Verdi, Rigoletto: Soloists, Opera Holland Park Chorus, City of London Sinfonia / Lee Reynolds (conductor). Opera Holland Park, London, 1.6.2023. (CC)

Hannah Pedley (Maddalena) and Alessandro Scotto di Luzio (Duke of Mantua) © Craig Fuller

Director – Cecilia Stinton
Designer – Neil Irish
Lighting designer – Jake Wiltshire
Movement director – Caitlin Fretwell Walsh
Offstage conductor – Lindsay Bramley

Rigoletto – Stephen Gadd
Gilda – Alison Langer
Duke of Mantua – Alessandro Scotto di Luzio
Sparafucile – Simon Wilding
Maddalena – Hannah Pedley
Giovanna –Georgia Mae Bishop
Count Ceprano – Benson Wilson
Countess Ceprano – Joanna Harries
Borsa – Mike Bradley
Monterone – Matthew Stiff
Marullo – Jacob Phillips
Court Usher – Samuel Snowden
Page – Annie George

Opera Holland Park is back, with new plush seating and bringing us another opera with a stage that encircles the orchestra, allowing for multiple stories to be told simultaneously. In fact, Cecilia Stinton’s staging uses much of the theatre: Gilda enters through the audience on one side (obviously back from being out on the lash, brandishing an open champagne bottle) and in a surprising turn of events leaves in the form of a transfigured apparition, up the other side and out.

Before discussing this Rigoletto in detail, it is worth pointing out that Stephen Gadd was announced as suffering from both a cold and hay fever but would appear. More on that later, but it was the first of several setbacks: the subtitles failed repeatedly post-interval, once for an extended amount of time before hypnotically scrolling through the missed dialogue; there were a couple of other shorter subtitle drop-outs. It was something of an evening beset with challenges.

The score is heard in an orchestral reduction by Tony Burke (@ Pocket Publications), skilfully done. The extra lightness suited Lee Reynolds’s brisk approach to the score: no dawdling but, to his credit, no rushing either. The drama moved naturally onwards, with plenty of detail audible from the City of London Sinfonia players (on top form, especially the woodwinds, and leader Gabby Painter.).

A scene from OHP’s new Rigoletto © Craig Fuller

Stinton sets the opera in a university, from the looks of it Oxbridge, with clear references to the notorious Bullingdon Club from the off. A posh boys’ club, this was known for its initiation rituals, seen right at the beginning when a student is hijacked at his desk and his head plunged into a bucket of ‘water’ before being further terrorised. Monterone wears a don’s gown. We are a long way from Italy and its courts, but the idea of elitist cliques is certainly paralleled. An old gramophone is the basis for the off-stage band, heard through crackles, taking us back to a 1920s vibe (there is some Charleston-like dancing about, too); a clever manoeuvre. Perhaps the other reference point is the TV series Upstairs Downstairs, with a clear differentiation between classes. Lighting (Jake Wiltshire) was superbly considered and executed, and costumes, courtesy of Neil Irish, are perfectly done – there is little doubt as to where we are or in what period. There is a fair amount of light trickery for the storm. The stage can appear rather busy at times, but coordination was expertly managed thanks to movement director Caitlin Fretwell Walsh.

The standout vocal and dramatic performance of the evening came from Alison Langer’s Gilda, secure from the off but seemingly just growing and growing in stature. Her ‘Caro nome’ was full of the flush of young love. She has the vocal virtuosity, certainly, and her whole stage persona exudes vibrancy. Her stage presence is also notable. I described Langer as ‘a rising star, beyond doubt’ in my review of OHP’s 2019 Un ballo in maschera; her way forwards towards a firm place in the operatic firmament continues with this starring role. Langer has a great career ahead of her on this evidence.

It was effectively ladies’ night at OHP. Georgia Mae Bishop was a fine, strongly characterised and well-sung Giovanna, while Hannah Pedley gave Maddalena her all as the prostitute/College bike, although I found her both vocally and dramatically vocally the most anonymous of the three. Joanna Harries was a strong Countess Ceprano.

The Duke was Alessandro Scotto di Luzio, not always entirely on pitch, though giving his all for the big ‘La donna è mobile’. A real pity he lost control of his voice at the offstage close (when Rigoletto hears him singing and realises the Duke is still alive). Simon Wilding was a Sparafucile who operates from within this rather sheltered society. His voice is not quite the burnished, threatening, rich type of bass that benefits the part best, but there was some sense of lurking evil around the portrayal. With Benson Wilson as a strong Count Ceprano and Matthew Stiff as a focused, powerful Monterone, on its day with the wind in the right direction this cast could gel to be a force of nature.

Not this day, sadly. Perhaps it was the indisposition of the Rigoletto that had an understandable effect. Stephen Gadd’s voice only very occasionally blossomed: many lines were an octave down, the great Quartet, ‘Bella figlia d’amore’ sadly much more of a Trio. It is one of those things, and the show went on because of Gadd’s bravery in adversity. I should like to hear him in full voice, because in terms of acting he owned the stage (this Rigoletto operates with a leg brace).  We certainly felt the emotions of ‘Pari siamo’.

The chorus was in excellent voice (when are they not, here?), the orchestra attentive to every nuance of Lee Reynolds’s fine and clear conducting. Reynolds clearly knows the score inside out.

Stinton’s production is certainly thought-provoking. Perhaps Monterone’s curse has been extended to this staging. One hopes not, as there is plenty to relish (I am not sure enjoy is the best word for this dark opera). Seven performances remain: June 3, 7, 9, 15, 17, 22 and 24.

Colin Clarke

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