Tuesday, 1 April 2014

ENO: Rigoletto

[From OPERA, April 2014, pp. 480-1]

English National Opera at the London Coliseum, February 13
It was inevitable that ENO had eventually to retire Jonathan Miller’s three-decade-
old Little Italy version of Rigoletto, the second of its its iconic productions to be lost this season. But in the case of its replacement by Christopher Alden, the phrase ‘new production’ has been rather loosely applied. Although billed as a co-production with the Canadian Opera Company only, it is in fact nearly half as old as Miller’s, having been seen in Chicago as long ago as 2000. Here it felt like an ill-fitting hand-me-down, extremely handsome, no doubt, but obscuring the work’s dramatic power behind a veneer of pretentiousness. 

This was especially disappointing after an encouragingly taut and disturbing first scene. During the prelude, Quinn Kelsey’s Rigoletto slumped on a chair downstage, gesturing longingly at a prostrate female figure spotlit behind a semi-transparent curtain. As the action got under way, a prim older woman (later revealed to be Giovanna, played by Diana Montague, but also bearing a close resemblance to a portrait of Gilda’s mother) opened the curtain to unveil an impeccably recreated mid-19th-century gentlemen’s club (designed by Michael Levine), replete with pot plants, roaring fire, chesterfields and gas lamps. That female figure (the dancer Rosana Ribeiro, playing Monterone’s wife, we were left to deduce) was passed around like a piece of meat in this oppressively patriarchal environment, where stoically maintained upper lips could be unstiffened and starched collars (and much else besides) unbuttoned. The sense of entitlement, amorality and a casual disregard for the abuses routinely committed was powerfully communicated, with Barry Banks’s chippy Duke presiding ambivalently over it all, Rigoletto keeping his distance. 

But when the curtain was reopened for the second scene, the price paid for the impressive and effective opening became clear. Levine’s set remained, serving as a dramatic straitjacket for the rest of the action, which became alternately stylized and dreamlike, but increasingly unconvincing. Anna Christy’s Gilda was presented as a broken but twisted child of the age, staring at the bleak portrait of her mother. And Peter Rose’s creepy Sparafucile—a bald, bearded travelling factotum with a delicious hint of macabre magic about him—conversed with Rigoletto while she sat there within the same ‘club’. Her dealings with her father were cold and distant. And, with Gilda robbed of innocence, the Duke’s seductions were rendered perfunctory. 

Arguably, of course, to portray Gilda as such is to deny the masculine fantasies of
virginal purity that are so often a prerequisite of woman’s operatic undoing; but it is also to undermine one of the tragedy’s main drivers. Similarly, to retain more of the nastiness in Rigoletto himself than we usually see in the opera (particularly clear in the last of several awkward confrontations played out in front of the curtain as the scenery was shifted) is to undercut Verdi’s own characterization. And, as the show progressed, Alden seemed to resort to stylish but empty theatrical flourishes to mask the fact that his staging and Verdi and Piave’s opera were parting company. A ladder descended from the club’s ceiling in Act 1, which Gilda started climbing; at the end of Act 2, Monterone was hanged at the back, while his ‘wife’ resumed her frantic dancing, and Rigoletto and Gilda sang their vendetta duet with inappropriate restraint. 

The scene of Gilda’s murder, so carefully choreographed in Verdi’s score, was hopelessly botched, complicated by the almost constant presence of the other club members. The final scene, with Gilda folded under a large white sheet and the stage finally cleared of furniture and observers, was visually arresting but dispiritingly cool and unmoving, with Gilda simply wandering off at the end. James Fenton’s translation, a holdover from Miller’s production, handily omits the details in the libretto that would have jarred most, but the snippets of Italian it retains (the ‘addio’s for the Duke and Gilda, for example) are rather incongruous in Alden’s ‘clubland’. 

Kelsey, who had also sung in this production in Toronto, was fully invested in his characterization, to which his beautiful, baleful voice seemed especially well suited. And the apparent ease with which his baritone filled the Coliseum was astonishing, without any hint of the voice being forced or pushed, and with every word coming across with absolute clarity. He can also manage an admirable legato, even if the light-coloured timbre is some way from the grainier, gruffer Verdian norm. He towered, in all senses, above Banks’s Duke, the source of whose power and allure was never entirely clear. 

The tenor sang the role cleanly enough, albeit with a couple of dubious interpolations, but any stylishness was militated against by the tight, slightly squeezed sound and the smallness of the voice. Similarly, Christy’s Gilda was short on lyric allure, but her soprano’s glassy (and occasionally yelpy) sound was not unsuited to the characterization. Rose’s Sparafucile was sung with refinement, and there was a powerful contribution from David Stout as Monterone. George Humphreys and Anthony Gregory were also impressive as Marullo and Borsa, a particularly nasty pair of courtiers here. Justina Gringyte made an extremely handsome Maddalena, although I failed to pick up on the incestuous overtones that apparently existed between her and her brother. 

Graeme Jenkins, returning to ENO after a long absence, conducted a lucid, highly musical and flexible account of the score, and the orchestra (including a cimbasso instead of a tuba) played extremely well, creating a clean and transparent sound that fully revealed the quality of Verdi’s orchestration. Other conductors have found more in the way of implacable dramatic thrust, and there were a couple of moments of dodgy ensemble, but musically this was a very refined evening. 

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