New Rigoletto

11 Mar

I suppose it was time for a new ENO Rigoletto.  The Jonathan Miller one lasted 30 years and was, last time I saw it (my sixth), looking a little bit tired.  It remained, however, a brilliant example of how you can update an opera while remaining true to the basic story, create a convincing milieu and keep the visceral excitement of the piece.  I saw it during its first run and returned reasonably regularly – it was a good show to take opera novices to.  The Coliseum will not feel the same without it – it’s been a constant of my London opera-going life.

Christopher Alden’s new production (I saw the production on 10th March) is another co-production with the Canadians.  He sets it in a nineteenth century gentlemen’s club  and, according to his note in the programme, deliberately has the second scene of Act I and the last Act set there too – apparently as a way of showing that, however much Rigoletto may wish to divide his life, he can’t.  Or was it because the budget couldn’t stand more than one location?  It starts off well – Rigoletto sees a dead woman behind a cloth.  It parts and we are in the club – it looks good, the huge stage works well for this scene with its different areas of action.  You get the sense of masculine power and their attitude to women and there’s actually enough differentiation between the scenes for the club setting to be a sort of background rather than a precise location.

Yet there are also doubts which my literal mind insists upon.  I don’t have a particular problem in this club being the sort of place where women get raped and treated as chattels, but would a Duke hold so much power there that he could get one of the members hanged?  And nobody particularly bothers to change the English translation so you just have to assume that the club is somewhere near the Thames and, and – well, with Christopher Alden, it doesn’t do to be too literal.  There are striking moments – the procession of courtiers coming to abduct Gilda, Ceprano’s daughter a maddened figure haunting the club, the courtiers watching the rape.

What I missed (and this is often a feature of his productions) is a lack of tension between the characters.  They tend to speak to us, rather than each other.  At the end of Act II there was a very powerful effect of Gilda and Rigoletto, throwing huge shadows as they came downstage during their duet (with Monterone being hanged in the background and his daughter going mad) but you didn’t get the feel that she was trying to stop him murdering the Duke or that he was particularly registering her.  I wasn’t sure that I got Rigoletto’s obsessive worry about Gilda – at the end of the first act, he was left in front of the drop cloth and didn’t really have a hope to convey the sense of a man running through the house with growing panic building up to the recollection of the curse. The last lines came as a slight anti-climax.  And there was also a sense that the set was just too large for what is, essentially, quite an intimate opera -eyes wandered and, for final scene, with Rigoletto and Gilda right in the centre of the stage, it felt as if they were too far away for the emotions to tell. It’s a strong, interesting piece of work but it’s not one I’d particularly want to see again.

The cast was pretty good and it’s worth, in particular, commending the diction.  For the first Act, I couldn’t see the surtitles and heard a very high percentage of the words – to the extent that I was noting the alterations made to James Fenton’s translation from the version that has becoming familiar over 30 years and the CD.

Quinn Kelsey was the Rigoletto.  I was impressed by his large, dark voice which sounded good for the role and his sense of bitterness and desperation.  He gave a lot of pleasure  in his duet with Gilda in Act I and his Act II scene with the courtiers and I felt that here was someone to watch.  Barry Banks was in outstanding form as the Duke – the voice suits the role and he sang it effortlessly, with great style and acted it marvellously: of all the singers, he gave the greatest overall pleasure.  I was less taken by Anna Christy as Gilda.  She has a very light, very pure voice that does not work badly for the opening scenes but didn’t seem to me to have the depth and colour for scenes after her rape.  Peter Rose, predictably was excellent and luxury casting as Sparafucile (even if not quite effacing memories of John Tomlinson thirty two years ago).

The smaller roles were a mixed bunch: Justina Gringyte a slightly anonymous Maddalena, George Humphreys rather a good Marullo.  The Monterone lacked the power you need for the curse to register.

Graeme Jenkins conducted.  I loved the way he did the prelude, lowering, brooding,  beautifully developed and, throughout, he brought out the textures and colours in the score and accompanied the singers fabulously well.  He caught the foreboding, brooding melancholy of the piece.  Tempi struck me as a tad on the slow side and what I missed was the sheer excitement that, say Mark Elder or Edward Downes have brought to the score.

The audience clearly enjoyed the music and those of us who new the piece weren’t going to let Alden faze us but, as so often with this director, I felt he let his ideas get in the way of the piece making its effect rather than providing illumination.

It’s good to see a new Rigoletto and it made for an enjoyable, thoughtful evening, but I don’t see this one reaching its third, let alone its thirtieth, birthday.

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