Instead of tears, titters can be produced if in the last act of Rigoletto, the soprano looks ridiculous dressed as a boy and the stage action makes it impossible to believe that she survived the stabbing by Sparafucile. The truth of Verdi’s music and fine singing can overcome that reaction, but a talented director can also help, by re-conceptualizing the scene. On an abstract set, in some other historical context or in contemporary dress, the action no longer feels cramped by expectations of theatrical naturalism. At least, that’s the idea
Verdi and Piave’s La Forza del Destino can make Rigoletto’s story seem like something from Samuel Beckett. After an opening built around an errant gunshot that kills the enraged father of Leonora, who is about to elope with her lover Don Alvaro, the rest of the opera belabors coincidence amid tangentially related episodes (what does Preziosilla have to do with anything?) as Leonora’s brother seeks revenge on both his sister and her lover. No one who knows his work expects David Pountney to go the traditional route with this opera.
After viewing the 2008 production of Forza Pountney brought to the Vienna State Opera, however, the question is, what route did he choose? Working with set designer Richard Hudson, Pountney strips the opera of any geographical reality. The first half plays out on a white ramp with one end closed off in the shape of a wall. For the second half, with its battle scenes, some tower structures are added, with the platform remaining as a foundation. Costuming of the three leads tends to the drab and ordinary, with a decidedly contemporary look to the suits Hudson provides the men. Then Preziosilla dances on in a cowgirl costume, surrounded by Vegas showboys and showgirls in complementary outfits, and that fatal whiff of directorial condescension to the material creeps in. Instead of diverting a contemporary audience from the problematic nature of the Forza libretto, Pountney’s approach emphasizes the weaknesses.
The only strength Pountney brings to the show comes in his work with Nina Stemme, the Leonora. She is a tragic character almost from the start and as such risks tiring an audience with her constant pathetic appeal. Stemme adds a core of strength to the character, and though her voice lacks that warmth often called “Italianate,” her secure and smooth delivery are admirable. As her brother, Carlos Álvarez spends the entire show glowering, and though he has the right sound for the part — masculine, authoritative — he borders on comic villainy. The late Salvatore Licitra demonstrates why his once-promising career never quite fulfilled itself. He looks good, and at moments has exactly the heroic tenor sound one wants. Then he slips into lazy phrasing and passages where his intonation veers sadly off-course. Still, with so few singers able to take on these roles these days, his loss remains a very sad one.
Add to Pountney’s “ideas” having Alastair Miles sing both Leonora’s father and Padre Guardino. Miles handles both parts with impressive command, but if some point is being made, it barely seems worth considering. And do the tunics Miles and Licitra have to wear in the opening and closing scenes have some symbolic import? If not, they do serve the function of being unattractive.
Zubin Mehta also conducted a Forza released on DVD a few years ago. He knows his Verdi, and the singers never lack for dramatic support. The Unitel set has a thin booklet and no other special features. The credit sequence, with its animated sequence of a gun firing a bullet superimposed over rehearsal footage is a bad mixture of possibly good individual ideas. Even worse is when the gun imagery returns during the opera proper. Karina Fibich, credited as video director, should have rethought that one (perhaps it was Pountney’s idea).
So, for Forza on DVD, the best choice remains that old black and white version with Tebaldi and Corelli, on sets so flimsy they wrinkle when touched. It is doubtful even those singers could save, however, Pountney’s misguided approach.