Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Rigoletto @ Coliseum, London

13, 15, 20, 22, 25 February – 1, 5, 7, 10, 12, 14 March 2014

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: ENO)

Rigoletto will always be opera’s ultimate tragic figure. Although he has mastered the art of mockery with merciless zeal, the role of jester was surely imposed upon him by a society that could never view a hunchback as anything other than a comic being. Having forced him to carve a niche in this profession to begin with, the great and the good then point the finger at him when they feel exposed, and it is he who suffers the most dreadful of fates while those really in control go unscathed.

Christopher Alden, however, in his new production for English National Opera (a co-production with Canadian Opera Company) takes a view of the character that places more emphasis on his own role in his demise. Alden argues that Rigoletto “has climbed to the top of the ladder of power by dint of his malicious wit” and so in his own way has made it in life. His downfall lies in his inability to keep his unscrupulous public ways separate from his private life as a devoted and protective father. In the event, this view proves very easy to hook into as the interesting and generally effective staging makes the associated points clearly enough.

Alden sets the drama in Verdi’s own time, in a ‘gaming room’ designed by Michael Levine. With its sloped floor and ceiling that emphasise the depth of the area, and its wooden panelled walls and sumptuous decor, the dynamic environment is underscored by the chorus who frequently fill it. Rigoletto illustrates a man’s world anyway, and by placing the entire action in the type of room to which a nineteenth century gentleman might retire after dinner, this point is emphasised. Women feel particularly marginalised, with a dancer (Rosana Ribeiro) in the opening scene appearing as Monterone’s daughter while playing out the torment of each woman the Duke has ever wronged.

In this way, nothing occurs in real space. When Sparafucile (Peter Rose) first approaches Rigoletto, the former is seen caressing Maddalena (Justina Gringyte), even as the latter gazes on his daughter back at home. Rigoletto, Giovanna, Gilda and the Duke are all physically on stage as Giovanna lets the Duke into the house behind Rigoletto’s back, and he and Gilda meet. Giovanna (Diana Montague) also appears in the ‘palace scenes’ as the Duke’s servant, and Gilda overhears Sparafucile and Maddalena’s final plan by standing between them rather than at the window.

All of this sets up some interesting dynamics that bring out many subtexts and commentaries on the various relationships, although a few problems arise from the lack of real settings. Gilda is forced to climb a ladder specifically so that the mob can pull her down from one, while the scene culminating in her murder feels less chilling for having the chorus introduce a comic element by lying around indulging in an orgy.

At the heart of the action lies the figure of Rigoletto, and Alden reveals his private persona by periodically dropping the curtain to show him alone in a void. At the end of scene one he tenderly caresses Monterone’s daughter as he first reveals his private fatherly side, and as Gilda is kidnapped Alden cleverly uses the curtain device to focus our attention on the jester rather than her. By placing him so often in front of this black backdrop as he sings of the curse upon him we become more aware than ever of his total obsession with it. This would seem to be an excellent illustration of how they only work on those who believe in them, and Alden takes this a step further by arguing that Rigoletto’s emphasis on the curse ‘as the source of his misfortune is an easy way out of facing up to his own responsibility as the master of his fate’.

Also in keeping with Alden’s vision, Rigoletto is dressed not as a comical jester but quite smartly in a silk waistcoat. True, a dunce cap motif recurs throughout (the mob uses it as Rigoletto’s blindfold during the abduction), and he retains a hunchback. Frequently, however, he seems more twisted and tormented in his private moments, suggesting that his deformity is less a physical attribute than a reflection of his state of mind.

Graeme Jenkins conducts in a smooth and balanced manner, enabling the drama to feel suitably heightened but never indulging in histrionics. Barry Banks, with his assertive tenor voice, makes a highly effective Duke, and the fact that he looks a little more world weary than the stereotypical dashing figure makes his performance all the more intriguing. As he sings ‘Parmi veder le lagrime’ we sense a vulnerability that suggests Gilda really is the one for him. This only makes the reassertion of his callous nature once he discovers she is in his grasp all the more shocking.

Anna Christy as Gilda sometimes seems slightly insensitive to everything going on around her, and her vibrato can be a little harsh, but she nonetheless delivers a generally feeling performance. Her renditions of ‘Gualtier Maldè!’ and ‘Tutte le feste al tempio’ are particularly beautiful and expressive, and one senses this really is a part she could go on developing further and further over time.

But the highest accolades go to Quinn Kelsey who oozes presence as the torn and disturbed figure at the centre of the drama. His strong baritone voice also proves remarkably flexible, and cannot fail to secure our undivided attention as it cuts through the Coliseum air. London has hardly been strapped for good Rigolettos, but Kelsey’s must surely rank with the very best of them.

Matthew Treviño plays Sparafucile on 20, 25 February, 1, 5, 7 March.

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