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Plácido Domingo as Rigoletto
08 Sep 2010

Unique Rigoletto live from Mantua

Realism never comes more authentic than this RAI Rigoletto filmed live on location in Mantua, Italy and broadcast simultaneously in 148 countries..

Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto

Plácido Domingo: Rigoletto; Julia Novikova: Gilda; Vittori Grigolo: Il Duca di Mantova; Ruggerio Raimondi: Sparafuclie; Nino Surguladze: Maddalena. Zubin Mehta, conductor, Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI. Andrea Alderrmann: Producer. Mario Bellochio: Director. Vittorio Storare: Cinematographer. Filmed live in Mantua via RAI, Radiotelevisione Italia, 3-4th September 2010.

Above: Plácido Domingo as Rigoletto


Verdi’s stage directions are so faithfully followed that the performance took place over two days. Just as Verdi indicated, each Act unfolds at the correct time of day, in the places indicated in the libretto. Ultimate veracity to script.

No ordinary theatre has the capacity to create a production as loyal to the composer’s instructions as this. This is the real Palazzo Ducale di Mantova. No two dimensional theatre set could hope to replicate the possibilities filming in real space can offer. The Palace is a maze of different buildings connected by alleyways and courtyards. A metaphor for the complex relationships within the Court, where nothing is quite as simple as might seem.

Real Renaissance staircases and hallways, real marble parquets. Frescoes painted by 15th and 16th century masters. Real antique tapestries and furniture. No opera house workshop would even dream of competing with Mantegna or Corregio. Design doesn’t get more perfect than this.

Yet the production resists the temptation to linger on these riches. The focus is resolutely on the opera itself, which is as it should be. Film offers possibilities which expand the impact of any opera. At the ball in Act One, for example, the camera shoots the dancers from above, so we can appreciate the intricate choreography. It’s not just for show, since intrigue at Court is like a dance, with death for those out of step. Rigoletto mocks Count Monterone but soon it will be his own turn to be trounced.

Film enables commentary without interrupting action. Plácido Domingo runs from the courtiers into the room with the famous Mantegna ceiling, painted to look as it if opens onto the sky. It’s trompe l’oeil, deliberate illusion, reversing the natural order. The Dukes of Mantua looked on it as a joke. Rigoletto has no illusions. For him, life is a bad joke. He has to play the fool to survive. Domingo’s face twists in anguish, but for a moment his head is framed against Mantegna’s golden circle, like a halo.

Similarly, the film adds to the portrayal of Gilda. The character’s a mystery. She’s her father’s daughter because she’s inherited his extreme personality. Ten years ago, Christine Schäfer created a Gilda who exploded with passionate heroism. Julia Novikova is much too young and inexperienced to attempt such intensity. Instead Director Marco Bellochio makes her innocence a positive feature. She’s filmed in a room of Lucca della Robbia medallions, depicting the Madonna and Infant Jesus. Gilda’s grown up in isolation. Her only references to life come from religion. Other girls might be wary of blind faith, love, sacrifice and death, but Gilda never questions. The very purity Rigoletto hoped would protect her becomes his defeat.

Plácido Domingo chooses to sing Rigoletto perhaps because the tessitura in the first Act lies close enough to his range that it’s not much of a challenge. Later, when the part darkens, he relies more on the integrity of his acting. Rigoletto is growing old, ravaged by a lifetime of pretending to be what he isn’t. Domingo’s growing old, too, at last able to release his “Inner baritone” not so much through vocal perfection but through the authenticity of his acting.

His performance is artistically valid because he’s creating the character intuitively. Film helps moderate the experience, focusing close-up on his mobile facial muscles, so expressive that even if his vocal chords aren’t what they were, you’re drawn through other means to a true portrayal of Rigoletto’s personality.

Vittorio Grigolo, hot new favourite, comes over very well indeed as the Duke of Mantua. He’s a film natural, good looking and sexy, moving as if he inhabits this set like he was born to it. Interesting warm voice, with potential.

Faithful as this production is to script, following directions too literally leads to problems in Act Three. Verdi wanted a night-time atmosphere but being too literal means the action is fatally obscured. Ruggerio Raimondi’s Sparafucile impresses because he’s indoors where there’s light, an interesting reversal of his first appearance in the dark alley.

The final scene, where Rigoletto finds his daughter again is too shrouded. On conventional stage, it would be completely lost. Here, it’s done via close-ups that can be easily lit. In a sense it’s psychologically true, since Rigoletto is now truly alone, but it doesn’t make for good theatre.

Producer Andrea Alderman and this team created the 1992 Tosca filmed on location in Rome, with Domingo as Cavaradossi and Ruggerio Raimondi as Scarpia. Twenty years on, technology and telecommunications are much more sophisticated. Still, the logistics are such that it’s amazing there weren’t more technical hitches, especially as this was live, with no room for correction.

Zubin Mehta didn’t conduct at the scene where the singing was being filmed. He and the orchestra were in the building nearby, so there was simultaneous transmission, apparently by state of the art techniques, between orchestra, singers and film crew. It’s certainly not unusual these days for performers to communicate via TV monitors, so the slight discord between Mehta’s pace and the singing stemmed more from his tempi than from the medium itself.

This film, in any case, isn’t supposed to replicate studio conditions. Nowadays, operas aren’t filmed in sterile conditions, but as they happen on stage (even if they’re carefully edited). There are compensations, like greater spontaneity, which are closer to real experience in an opera house, where things aren’t necessarily perfect every time. Films like these are an extension of the process.

Imagine the technical, legal and logistic nightmares that were involved making this. Insurance and government clearance must have been hard to negotiate. International simultaneous broadcast to organize. The wonder is that more didn’t go wrong.

We can see stage performances of Rigoletto any time, but we’ll never see another production quite like this. This ambitious venture is unique.

Anne Ozorio

Click here for a video clip.

Click here for a photo array of this production.

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