How does it come about that "modern" productions date so quickly while "traditional" ones can go on for ages ? Probably, because ideas that once were fresh and innovative are immediately picked up by everybody in the business, copied (sometimes ad nauseam) and seem stale when they reappear some years later.
For one moment I thought that the great recycler-of-the-one-idea-he-ever-had, Mr. Robert Wilson, had directed the Amsterdam Rigoletto. During the prelude the chorus slowly raised their arms in the well known tai-chi manner while the ugliness of their red unisex penguin costumes reminded me of the horrors during the second act of Aida at De Munt in Brussels (later spewed out at London's Covent Garden). A few whispered words told me that the director actually was the Dutch Monique Wagemakers, best known for her work as director of a regional company, and that the production had first been shown in 1996. Miss Wagemakers succeeded exceedingly well in rehashing all clichés of Das Regietheater. The chorus was not only a company of courtiers but of course were viewers as well from high on at the events in the last act. A normal floor is out of the question when one can use an inclined plane that is a comment on its own on what's happening. And to top it all (pun intended) Rigoletto's house is somewhat reduced to one very high steep and rather small flight of steps. There Gilda may sing her Caro nome and there she is kidnapped. One could almost sense the fear of soprano and chorus when they had to wrap her in and then lower her down after Zitti, ziti. And the poor baritone had to run up quite a few steps before able to launch his Ah ! La Maledizione and as could be expected, the voice had no air left and it was only a tiny curse. In short Miss Wagemakers only succeeded while trying to free us from old clichés in giving us new ones.
Mind you, I realize only too well that an old war-horse as Rigoletto is difficult to renovate; especially after Jonathan Miller's updating to Little Italy in the fifties at the English National Opera some 20 years ago. That was an example of a well thought out production that made the opera seem like new to me and I admit, made it difficult for this reviewer to accept the traditional court of Mantua. Still give me the court any day if the alternative is a box of clichés. The one positive aspect of this Rigoletto was the treatment of the singers. No impossible gestures and the face firm to the public.
Conductor Daniele Callegari is a man who knows his Verdi and I was somewhat surprised he chose the easy option to make an impression now and then: either too slow tempi (the prelude) or too fast ones (Cortiginani vil razza). But most of the time he kept a firm rein on the orchestra and was not above indulging his singers. Anthony Michaels-Moore was Rigoletto. I wonder if he could make the same excellent impression in a theatre a size bigger (say Covent Garden). Michaels-Moore is excellent in early Verdi and I liked his Doge in I due Foscari at De Munt very much. He is no roaring madman as Bastianini was and for a moment I wondered if Rigoletto is not a shade too heavy a role. But he succeeded admirably. The voice is smooth, well-rounded and used very stylishly. He often reminded me of Fischer-Dieskau's famous DG-recording in the way he treated words and phrases. But Michaels-Moore 's voice is not a short tenor manqué but a real baritone with a firm brown core and a strong secure top.
Young Italian soprano Cinzia Forte sang Gilda. She has a nice lirico with a firm coloratura technique; somewhat like Rosanna Carteri or young Moffo. The first act she remained a little too bland, too colourless. Just a nice but not too distinct voice. But this changed in the second act when the voice bloomed and took colour. She will probably go far. Roles like Sparafucile and Maddalena are sometimes not cast from strength but one realizes the importance of good voices in these roles as well when one has suffered the hollow ugly tones of both Mario Luperi and Graciela Araya.
And then there was tenor Joseph Calleja whom I had heard a few years back at De Munt in Don Pasquale. In the meantime his career is going fast, maybe even a little too fast. There is a first recital on Decca where he sings a lot of stuff that is simply unsuitable for the voice like Adriana Lecouvreur. So I wondered how much he had improved on his very fine Ernesto of a few years ago. First of all, the voice has gained in strength and volume without damaging the basic colour. Imagine a little bit of young Björling mixed with parts of young Pavarotti and add a healthy dose of young Tagliavini while the small fluttery vibrato is all Calleja's own. In short, a mellifluous and exciting lyric tenor sound in the very best Italian tradition. The voice is maybe not over big but carries extremely well in a difficult theatre like Amsterdam. The only weakness for the moment lies at the very top of the range and that is somewhat unlike Pavarotti and Björling but more than one tenore di grazia had a short top. Still that has improved too. The high B in La donna è mobile rang out freely, courtesy of Maestro Callegari who allowed his tenor a deep breath before attacking the note. Calleja (please pronounce his name as if he would be Spanish, thus Calle- ch- a) for the moment has not got a high C and he should refrain from taking the high option in Addio, addio which he sang in falsetto. There is one Pavarotti-feature he should better not emulate. He will be only 27 next January and already has got weight problems which make costume designers looking for solutions so as not to accentuate his girth. So, please Mr. Calleja, try to rein in your appetite after a performance and it will be better for your breath too.
Now having heard both Calleja and Villazon at Amsterdam in a few months time (and Florez at De Munt), how do they compare ? Villazon is definitely the better actor though as a singer he has his weaknesses too: not much of a piano and not a shameless top note hunter either as is Florez. Calleja definitely has the more beautiful voice, the most exciting rich timbre of all three. His is a golden sound that reminds us of the very best Italian lyric tenors. Villazon is an exciting performer and an impressive voice with his dark smooth sound sometimes quivering from emotion like the fine verismo tenors before the war. Florez lacks either the exquisite sound of Calleja or the big sound of Villazon but is nevertheless a miracle in his repertoire. Personally and this is personal indeed I'd place Calleja nr. 1, followed by Villazon and Florez on third place. But how lucky we are that after the dreary lean years of the late eighties and nineties we have once more such three fascinating tenor voices.