For the most part, the seventh revival of David McVicar’s 2001 production of Rigoletto delivers exactly what we might expect when a proven staging combines with a first rate cast. There are, however, just a few too many weaknesses in execution to make the evening truly memorable, although many of the difficulties may be ironed out as the run continues.
Aided by Michael Vale’s set, McVicar’s version paints a grubby picture of sixteenth century palace life. Surrounded by pieces of furniture half buried in dung heaps, the palace itself comprises a murky wall that slopes backwards. In some ways it looks like tarnished aluminium and parts are transparent, but it could depict blackened stone and there are traces on the surface of a grand Renaissance portico. This suggests that in origin the palace, like classicism, stood for purity and perfection, but everything has now become rotten to the core.
The set spins around to reveal Rigoletto’s (and later Sparafucile’s) house. That it is separated from the palace by the aforementioned sloping wall reveals how Rigoletto attempts to keep his public and private lives completely separate. The fact that in places it is translucent, however, reveals just how impossible it is to do this, while its smeared, dirtied state suggests that the consequences of Rigoletto’s approach will always be grim.
The revival director is the original movement director Leah Hausman, and the staging is undoubtedly dynamic. The opening orgiastic scene highlights the sordid nature of court life so that the Duke may epitomise hedonistic egotism, but hardly stands alone in craving carnal delights. Despite the use of a gangway upon which key entrances are made, however, too much distracting activity occurs to ensure the eye is always drawn to the right thing at the right time as several characters and plot points are introduced.
Paule Costable’s lighting is highly effective and the staging, lighting and costumes (designed by Tanya McCallin) frequently combine to intelligent effect. For example, as Gilda and the Duke end ‘È il sol dell’anima’ they stand on opposite sides of a dividing fence. With light falling on Gilda’s white dress as the Duke stands almost in darkness, we can appreciate the gulf between their stances even as they both sing that they will never stop loving the other.
The standout performance comes from Aleksandra Kurzak as Gilda, whose burnished voice is as vibrant as it is sweet and pure. In her heart stealing performance of ‘Gualtier Maldè!’ her tremolo is exquisite, and the following through and tapering off of phrases executed to perfection. My only doubt is that, by virtue of such a polished portrayal, this Gilda comes across as too self-assured to make it believable that she really could become so infatuated or behave so irrationally.
Simon Keenlyside is splendid in the title role. In the perennial debate over whether Rigoletto is master of his own destiny or victim of a cruel society, Keenlyside’s portrayal tends towards the latter interpretation as he comes across as both human and humane. I was struck by just how little this Rigoletto wears his jester’s hat. He only does so at all in the court scenes, and even then he removes it to plead for his daughter’s return as if saying the time for joking is over. Keenlyside asserts with his strong baritone instrument, but on opening night many of his phrases in the upper register were shaky and underpowered. He may simply have been having an off night, and if so he did very well to pace himself as his performance in Act III was exceptional.
Saimir Pirgu makes a dashing Duke, and although his phrasing in ‘È il sol dell’anima’ is not quite as masterly as Kurzak’s, he still delivers handsomely. He is possessed of a pleasing and powerful tenor instrument, and if at times he pushes things so hard that there is a sense of strain and lack of focus, if he can settle over the run he has the potential to raise a good performance even higher. On opening night, his rendering of ‘Parmi veder le lagrime’ was still persuasive and there were no problems at all with ‘La donna è mobile’.
Maurizio Benini’s conducting is for the most part strong, but he does not deliver consistently throughout. On some occasions, he seems highly sensitive towards the singers’ needs and keeps the orchestra very much in balance with the performers, but this is not always the case. There are clearly many interesting things going on his interpretation, but there are occasions when the output lacks the required spirit and charge, and where this is so the tempo can feel on the slow side.
There are some excellent performances in the supporting roles. Sebastian Holecek proves a highly accomplished Monterone, while Brindley Sherratt and Justina Gringyte are entirely convincing as Sparafucile and Maddalena. There are also strong contributions from Duncan Rock as Marullo, Jihoon Kim as Ceprano and Luis Gomes as Borsa.
There is much to enjoy in this well-established production of Rigoletto and while on opening night there were just a few too many flaws, the likelihood is that these will be eliminated, meaning that the remainder of the run could prove very strong indeed.
The performances on 17 and 21 (matinee) September feature a largely different cast. For full details visit the Royal Opera House website.
Paul Wynne Griffiths conducts on 6 October.
Rigoletto will be relayed live on BP Big Screens around the country on 17 September. For details of venues click here.