Bored and boring Rigoletto

26 Sep

Everyone makes mistakes now and then.  Mine was to buy tickets for the performance of Rigoletto at the Royal Opera House on 23rd September.  Ther ROH’s was putting it on in the first place.

To be fair, it all looked so promising.  Simon Keenlyside is one my favourite singers, Aleksandra Kurzak has impressed me every time I’ve seen her here and Saimir Pirgu seems to have a growing reputation.  Maurizio Benini couldn’t spoil it and, the last time I saw David McVicar’s production (admittedly in 2002), I thought it thoroughly enjoyable.

Oh dear.  The prelude was unobjectionable but then the opera itself started.  What may have been bright, alive and well-planned was turned into an orgy by numbers: loads of simulated sex with clothes firmly in place, people fondling each other to order and a naked man making sure we saw his genitals for a bit.  It looked tawdry and brain-dead.  Monterone was accompanied by a group of soldiers with axes which they pointed ineffectually at him. Pirgu sang his aria with the grace of a bored accountant and sound under-powered in the ensembles.  He gave that sort of generalised operatic acting of someone who doesn’t really know why he is standing there.

Keenlyside looked lithe and bounced a lot – using his sticks as aids to moving long distances rather than because he needed them.  His acting seemed uncertain. Vocally he was, perhaps, a little light but nothing to complain about.

After that scene, the revolve cranked arthritically round.  Keenlyside came back, rather like a dodgy monk and not really needing the sticks at all.  Brindsley Sherratt made a very strong Sparafucile and that scene went pretty well.  Kurzak arrived, sounding slightly out of voice as Gilda and the most dispiriting part of the evening began.  There was nothing particularly wrong with her singing or Keenlyside’s – there was just no evidence of interest, of connection or emotion between them.  Once Pirgu arrived, it got even worse.  He moved gamely enough, sang adequately, but, again there was nothing to suggest what he was thinking, if indeed he was.  Both he and Kurzak seemed to move because they’d been told to.  His cry of anger at the interruption made no effect at all.

Kurzak went on to sing probably the best Caro nome that I’ve heard in the theatre but it was fine technical singing and, in any case, too late.  The remainder of the Act happened and I left.

I love Rigoletto for its passion, its over-the-top melodrama but, above all, for the sheer conviction. The singers need to believe in and know what they’re doing and the director needs to be able to get them meld and provide some sort of conviction. All the conviction of 2002 had ebbed away in the umpteen revivals between then and now. The set looks tatty and, unless McVicar can be persuaded back to rehearse it, it should be retired quickly.  It’s unacceptable to anyone seeing the opera with their brain present rather than in the cloakroom or switched to neutral.

In lots of ways, I was less worried by whether or not Simon Keenlyside is a true Verdian singer than by what struck me was what an uncertain, unhappy dramatic performance he gave. The voice is no less suitable than Fischer-Dieskau’s and, while it might not be my preferred sort of baritone for the role you can’t deny the fact that he sings the notes easily and effortlessly and with real elegance. This would be fine for, say Ankarstrom or Luna, but Rigoletto needs an additional dimension – bite, words, an ugliness and bitterness about the tone and Keenlyside lacks these. He seemed profoundly uncomfortable in an interpretation built for a much larger, more powerful individual. The sticks seemed an encumbrance rather than a necessary aid and he didn’t have the presence or power to make this work.  I hate writing this about one of my favourite singers but, if he’s going to go this far out of his comfort zone, he really needs a strong director and a production built round him if it’s to stand a hope of working.

Kurzak gave us brand X acting and Pirgu a brand X tenor, with a voice not quite big enough for the house making no attempt to point words or have any involvement in the plot.  Both needed direction if they were going to make this work. The smaller roles seemed well enough done – I liked Duncan Rock’s enthusiastic, show-off Marullo.  Benini, orchestra and chorus went through the motions without giving the impression that they cared much.

If it all suddenly gelled in the second act, then I’m sorry but I thought this was a horrid throw-back to the bad old days of throwing opera on the stage and hoping the best and that the audience don’t notice.  Well I did and it does the ROH no good at all.

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