Verdi’s Rigoletto is an opera of passion, despair and sacrifice. The situations are evocatively depicted; the characters are drawn in great depth; the drama is taut and propulsive, yet unafraid to wallow in the momentary beauties of an aria or ensemble. But while the Royal Opera’s latest outing of David McVicar‘s production is a visually fine show, I found it lacking in both drama and musical colour.
McVicar’s greatest error is his interpretation of the opening scene. That the scandalous Duke is introduced amid such disarming, melodically beautiful (though not banal) Classical dances is highly ironic and consequently we feel greater loathing for his character. He is a shameless seducer inhabiting an ostensibly proper environment. Here, by presenting the party as a drunken orgy, McVicar undermines the drama’s unravelling thread. The atmosphere is unremittingly sleazy from the start – where do we go from here?
Actually, the production does work extremely well for the remainder of its duration. The revolving set is slowly elegant and it rotates only when needed. The lighting is dim for too long, but it successfully evokes the dank, creeping scenarios, particularly that of Act Three. Vaginal imagery is evident in the house’s solitary, dark window and the craggy entrance hole at the back of the stage. Rigoletto’s crutch becomes a phallus in the party scene. The direction is suggestive but unobtrusive and, unsurprisingly, this has become one of the Royal Opera’s most popular productions over recent years.
The central character conflict is between sheltered Gilda and her protective father Rigoletto. On opening night, Franz Grundheber, as Rigoletto, shaded his tone imaginatively and made a vast effort to impregnate every phrase of the language with meaning and suggestion. But his baritone was underpowered throughout and he had trouble reducing the dynamic while retaining projection. Piangi, fanciulla in particular seemed a little gruff. Patrizia Ciofi fitted her luxurious soprano into Gilda’s demanding lines, but her voice gained an unpleasant breathy vibrato up above, and top notes had to be approached from below. I was also unsure about her characterisation – Gilda is no wet blanket, and Ciofi’s languid stage presence made her final act of courage seem unbelievable.
The greatest disappointment was Wookyung Kim as the bastard Duke. And it was only a disappointment because his voice is so beautiful – even, easily controlled, Italiante, blooming in the upper register. It was rather Kim’s theatrical display that left me so cold. I sensed none of the Duke’s sensuality, none of his sexuality and none of his demonic lust. This character seemed amiable, pleasant and perhaps occasionally flamboyant. It was a frankly weird experience, in the Act Three quartet, to see such a jolly looking chap lift up Maddalena’s skirt and bugger her violently as he hit his top note. The Act One love duet and Parmi veder le lagrime were beautifully phrased but, dramatically, Kim felt to me like a damp squib.
Jacques Imbrailo was a perfectly characterised Marullo and the luminous, booming bass of Raymond Aceto in the role of Sparafucile was by far the most captivating thing on stage. But I was unsure about Renato Palumbo‘s conducting, which lost a sense of momentum and forward progression through odd, stop-start speeds and a great overuse of rubato. Ms Ciofi in particular could have done with more flexible, understanding tempi throughout the show, while La donna mobile was too fast for the tenor to think about shading his voice. The orchestra played very well.
The show still packs a great punch when it needs to – the storm scene is a cracker – but I was unconvinced overall.