This Rigoletto is the well-known David McVicar production from 2001, but this time the conductor is John Eliot Gardiner. He’s one of the great specialists in baroque and early music. This was not his first Verdi opera, but his first Rigoletto, so he was an inspired choice as conductor. Yet those who know period instrument practice know how rambunctious it can be. Gardiner’s Rigoletto is vigorous, capturing the turbulence of the Renaissance.
Be shocked by the licentiousness you see in the First Act. But McVicar’s not out to titillate, but to make us feel revulsion. For the Duke of Mantua, sex is a weapon, like any other abuse of power. We’re not supposed to approve. Listen to how Gardiner’s tight, disciplined approach challenges the depravity of this Court. At the first performance in this run (review here), Gardiner showed how Verdi builds moral purpose into the orchestra. Gardiner’s strong sense of structure, which undercuts any attempt at sentimentality. Listen out for small details, such as when flutes cut through the broad swath of strings. Small, individual voices that stand up to the mass. Gilda is powerless, but proves to be the most heroic person of all. Verdi tells us this even before she makes her sacrifice. Gardiner’s period background also shows in the way horns, trombones and cimbasso can be used to create 16th century colour even if the instruments are modern. This is a Rigoletto to listen to, as pure music.
Vittorio Grigolo sings the Duke of Mantua. He, too, is a good reason for catching this broadcast, as the emphasis on the Duke, rather than on Rigoletto brings out deeper perspectives on the role and on the opera. Grigolo and Gardiner contrast extremely well, one taunting the other, as should be, in this highly principled interpretation.
Grigolo makes an impact the moment he enters. “Questa o quella” is thrown like a gauntlet. Grigolo has the showmanship to create the Duke, strutting with arrogant machismo. The Duke luxuriates in his flashy image, and Grigolo glories in the flamboyance of his singing. This is no defect, but an accurate reading of the role. Grigolo’s Duke swaggers, for it’s his way of keeping control, of the courtiers and perhaps, of himself. There’s no room for subtlety. Thus, when the Duke falls for Gilda, it’s even more poignant when he almost reveals his inner fragility.
It’s then when Grigolo shows the depth of his characterization. With Gilda, he can play the man he might have been had he not been born to a crown. The duet with Gilda is genuinely tender. In “Ella mi fu rapita”, Grigolo lets the Duke’s mask drop for a moment, singing with genuine tenderness. In many ways this is the heart of the opera for it touches on the Duke’s inner psyche. Yet it’s not something the Duke can be comfortable with. Significantly, Verdi keeps cutting “La donna è mobile” so the sections don’t connect. Gardiner emphasizes the disjoint, for by this stage, the Duke is back to his old tricks, morally disintegrating once more. Grigolo’s voice gradually fades, for now the Duke is running away, blaming everyone but himself. Grigolo is a consummate actor and creates the part better than he’ll get credit for. The problem is that the Duke himself isn’t sympathetic and is a difficult character to portray.
Ekaterina Siurina sings Gilda with great personality, and Dimirtri Platanias sings Rigoletto. American audiences may recognize Matthew Rose, who sings Sparafucile, and ihas appeared at the Met, Santa Fe, Los Angeles, Houston and at the Mostly Mozart series in New York. He’s very unusual in that he’s a British singer whose career took off in the United States. This gives him a unique perspective.
Discovered by the British baritone Benjamin Luxon, Rose won a place at the Curtis Istitute and received his early training in Philadelphia. Because the opera faculty at Curtis is compact, unlike London, a singer gets more intensive experience at a fairly early stage. “It was wonderful”, says Rose, because he was able to sing good roles with well established singers. “It was like being on a top football team. When you’re working with stars, it raises your own game”.
Rose speaks of Curtis fondly, but decided to return to Britain where he started again as a Young Artist at the Royal Opera House. Moving back to Europe expanded his repertoire. He made his Royal Opera House debut in 2003 and is also a regular at Glyndebourne. He’s enterprising, too, and runs a music festival in Sussex and plans a Britten series in Berlin next year. He’s worked with the Britten-Pears Foundation. He’s also very experienced in oratorio, and has worked with John Eliot Gardiner many times.
Watch how Rose sings Sparafucile. He’s imposing. While the Duke of Mantua is immoral, Sparafucile is amoral. Rose doesn’t need to invest the part with histrionics. To Sparafucile, murder is a business transaction without emotional meaning. Rose’s detachment is chilling in itself. In his exchanges with Christine Rice’s Maddalena, Rose’s sibilants cut with suppressed sexual violence. They’re not “brother and sister” in the modern sense of the term, but pimp and whore. Rose makes you wonder how Sparafucile came to be who he is. He’s brutal, but is it personality or circumstance?
More people will experience opera on film than will ever attend live performances, so film is an essential part of the business. Filming opera is an art in itself. Whoever directs a film of an opera needs to understand the opera, and also how the cast, production and music express its meaning. Film is the next frontier. Kaspar Holten, the new Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House, is a movie buff as well as an opera professional, and directed his Juan (see the review in Opera Today here). But that was a film for it’s own sake, not a film of the opera as such. By far the majority of filmed operas will be attempts to capture live performance as it happens in the theatre. Good opera filming is a skill that requires musical knowledge as well as film technique, and above all, sensitive response to relevant detail. Fortunately, the Royal Opera House has the resources and commitment to do it well. For more information, please see this link to the Royal Opera House cinema page.