Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Rigoletto review – Opera Holland Park’s 2023 season opens in suitably strong style

30 May, 1, 3, 7, 9, 15, 17, 22, 24 June 2023


Verdi’s classic transported to the 20th century. 

Rigoletto

Rigoletto (Photo: Craig Fuller)

Had COVID-19 not reared its ugly head, Rigoletto would have been presented at Holland Park in 2020. Fortunately, Cecilia Stinton’s impressive production makes the three year delay worth the wait as she presents the drama in a highly innovative way and quite an unusual setting. The action is set in an Oxford college during the interwar period, and before anyone has sung a single note we witness a student being stripped and nearly drowned in a bucket of water. If this act might initially appear to show the Duke’s henchmen dealing with a disloyal individual, the way in which he is then handed a clean shirt and invited to join a party reveal that he has just undergone a Bullingdon style initiation ceremony. As Act I subsequently takes place at this party, the bad behaviour at which includes gâteaux in faces and the destruction of paintings, we see the college members in all their variety. The suave Duke is presumably the student president, and is surrounded by equally rich and well dressed supporters, but the gathering also includes more nerdy bookish types. Rigoletto features no female chorus, but the addition of some actors ensures that the men are accompanied by women. Monterone is an ageing professor, meaning that the Duke has seduced one of his own tutor’s daughters, while from his attire and bowler hat Rigoletto would appear to be a porter. 

As with all productions at the venue since 2021, the orchestra sits in a pit at the centre of the stage. The main performance area, which in Act I presents the college, lies behind while a further one, representing Rigoletto’s house, stands in front, with the spaces being linked by sloping gangways that run either side. The areas are separated by two gates, one at the top of each gangway, which create a clear barrier between the different areas, and reveal how Rigoletto attempts to keep his public and private lives entirely separate. However, because the gates stand in isolation so that the audience can see everything that occurs behind them, it shows just how impossible it is for him to do so.

In Neil Irish’s set, the college is represented by a series of columns, with bookshelves creating walls that separate out the different rooms. Bicycles lie around, rowing oars are fixed to one column while chandeliers and more modern lights hang from the ceiling. At the end of the party, the students retire for a formal dinner that can then be witnessed taking place in a side room for much of the remainder of Act I. The attention to detail is staggering as one diner lights his cigarette from a candle on the table, and we can assume that it is during this meal that Ceprano, Marullo (Jacob Phillips) and Borsa (Mike Bradley) plan out the kidnap of Rigoletto’s ‘mistress’. 

“…impressive production makes the three year delay worth the wait…”

Rigoletto

Stephen Gadd (Photo: Craig Fuller)

An Oxford college possesses its own set of hierarchies that may be different from those to be found in the original opera, but which can still be explored with just as much sense. Here, Rigoletto might not be in the direct employment of the Duke in the same way as a 16th century jester would be, but he could still find himself equally reliant on, and thus subservient to, the figure. In fact, it is easy to imagine how this Rigoletto, in the absence of youth, money or status, has nurtured his wit as a way of staying in with the college’s powers that be and hence being anything at all. One can also picture how the students could egg him on to entertain them when they feel like it, and then suddenly turn against him when they feel insulted. During Act III, the male chorus are actually visible at the sides of the stage as they deliver their ‘wailing’, suggesting that Rigoletto’s final defeat is all part and parcel of their wreaking revenge on him.

Sparafucile (an excellent Simon Wilding) is actually a steward who serves the students their meal. His own dwelling appears to be in the college itself, with him having made a reasonably posh room his own by putting up dartboards and posters for ale. The fact that a steward is also an assassin reveals how an underground world exists even within the college’s walls. It also shows that even in situations where strong hierarchies are at play, power does not only come from the top down as Sparafucile has clearly succeeded in establishing his own power base and circles of influence.

There sometimes feels as if there is a slight unevenness to the production. For example, the start of Act II paints a particularly brutal picture as we see Gilda gagged while a man is carried strung up on a pole across the stage. However, her kidnap that precedes this in Act I does not feel anywhere near as hard hitting. There is also one misstep when some of the music at the initial party is (supposedly) played on a gramophone record. One can see the intention behind the decision, as Verdi wrote this music for an onstage group of players, but, with the sound feeling too incongruous with that of the main orchestra, the world with which we are presented at the start does not feel consistent enough to draw us in entirely. However, these are minor problems in the face of everything that is right with the production. 

Lee Reynolds’ conducting of the City of London Sinfonia, who play an orchestral reduction supplied by Tony Burke, is splendid. Elgan Llŷr Thomas, who shares the role of the Duke over the run with Alessandro Scotto di Luzio, is smooth voiced, and proves to be quite charismatic without indulging in hyperbole. There is also superb support from Hannah Pedley as Maddalena, Georgia Mae Bishop as Giovanna, Benson Wilson as Count Ceprano and Matthew Stiff as Monterone. It is, however, the interactions between Stephen Gadd’s Rigoletto and Alison Langer’s Gilda that come across as particularly special by virtue of the strength of their individual performances. With just a leg brace and slight limp to suggest the jester’s deformity, Gadd offers quite a refined portrayal of the title character, making him feel more human and thus relatable than usual. He may not have been at his absolute best vocally on the night I attended (an appropriate announcement was made at the start of the evening), but the basic strength of his baritone remained obvious, meaning that future performances in the run are likely to be very good indeed. Alison Langer reveals impeccable phrasing and a wide variety of nuances in her soprano, as she suggests that Gilda possesses all of the needs and romantic ideas of any girl her age. By the time we have added in the fact that Opera Holland Park’s tented venue means Act III’s nighttime scene can be surrounded by a suitable level of darkness, it is clear that the company is in possession of a tremendous opener to its 2023 season. 

• Opera Holland Park’s 2023 season continues until 12 August. For details of all events and initiatives, and to book tickets, visit the OHP website


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