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Anna Christy and Quinn Kelsey [Photo by Alastair Muir]
16 Feb 2014

Rigoletto, ENO

One wonders if it wasn’t rather risky of ENO to stage a new version of Rigoletto when Jonathan Miller’s ‘mafioso’ production, which served the company so well for a quarter of a century, is still fresh in opera-goers’ minds and hearts?

Rigoletto, ENO

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Anna Christy and Quinn Kelsey [Photo © Alastair Muir]


Having taken the plunge, the ENO management have entrusted the task to director Christopher Alden. One cannot say they weren’t warned: his ‘nineteenth-century gentleman’s club’ up-date of the opera was castigated when first seen in Chicago in 2000, subsequently given a make-over and a kiss-of-life in Toronto in 2011, but no more favourably received. Perhaps Alden is right to say that we are all conservative conformists, too short-sighted and timid to appreciate the ‘edginess’ of his conception, but having witnessed the resurrection of his concept at ENO, I would prefer to conclude that Alden’s reading is illogical and inconsistent, sacrificing character to situation and equilibrium to momentarily pleasing but superficial flourishes.

Having recently placed the foppish aristocrats who populate Strauss’s Der Fledermaus on the Freudian couch, Alden seems to be taking the same approach here; Rigoletto spends an inordinate amount of time sitting on a plush chair positioned on the extreme front-right of the stage, lost in reverie, while a black-gowned, Mrs Danver-like phantom sweeps a black-veil curtain back and forth across the stage. Is Rigoletto asleep? Is what unfolds before us a recurring nightmare? Is the action a flashback, a memory? It’s not really clear; indeed, there are rather too many confusing, unanswered questions.

What is Rigoletto about? The director tells us that he has been concerned to illuminate the power of the ‘patriarchal nineteenth-century male’ whose ruthless exercise of authority results in the ‘subjugation of women’. A valid point in relation to the Duke, certainly: but surely not one which is appropriate with regard to Rigoletto, who idealises his beloved, departed wife and worships his daughter, caring more for her than for his own soul?

The jester’s grievances arise from class and ‘difference’; ridiculed and reviled he hates the Duke and the courtiers for their aristocratic hauteur, and his fellow man in general as he does not share Rigoletto’s malformation and affliction. Reflecting Rigoletto’s sense of class injustice, Alden and his designer, Michael Levine, certainly gives us a sumptuous setting, replacing the Mantuan court with a gentleman’s gaming club of Verdi’s own epoch. Gleaming wood-panelled walls, a majestic coffered ceiling, luxurious loungers, handsome oriental rugs, fragrant palms - the setting presents a fitting depiction of masculine domination, presumption, and clubby fraternity. Yet, presumably women would be absent from such a machismo domain? So, how are we to explain the presence of Giovanna, Gilda’s nurse, who is apparently acting as a pimp for the ‘genteel’ affiliates and who, insouciantly casting aside Gilda’s confidences, allows herself to be seduced by the Duke?

Moreover, how can this single room represent ‘both sides of Rigoletto’s life’ if, as Alden asserts, his tragic error is that he believes he ‘can neatly divide himself into [these] two separate compartments’? How also can it evoke the furtive domains of abduction, subterfuge and murder, which are equally important in the opera? The libretto distinguishes the various locale: opulent royal court, Rigoletto’s humble abode, Sparafucile’s scrubby inn. Alden commits a really shocking betrayal of musical form and meaning in the final Act, where Sparafucile and Maddalena lurk within the seedy bar plotting murder while Gilda and Rigoletto crouch outside in the darkness, alone, betrayed, disillusioned. This spatial division is embedded in the form of the quartet, and underscores the poignancy of the discovery of the treachery. To present all participants within a single space severely undermines the musical and dramatic potency of Verdi’s score.

In addition, we need to see Rigoletto’s private world in order to understand his humanity. Alden suggests that the jester’s sequestered domain reveals his schizophrenia, that he is ‘sweetly sentimental in his desire to keep his daughter pure and uncorrupted by the outside world’. But, surely we are meant to believe that Rigoletto’s love for his daughter is genuine rather than sentimentally self-deceptive. Physically and mentally deformed, his one redeeming quality is his filial devotion … otherwise, what is the tragedy? Moreover, Alden thrusts Gilda into the public sphere; in this production, there is no protected space where she is sheltered by fatherly concern - contradicting his observation that the women are all ‘locked safely away at home’. If that is the case, who then is the crazed banshee in white petticoat flailing and wailing amid the patriarchal associates?

More than this, the characters, dressed identically, are hard to distinguish. The men wear tuxedos; the women black. Even Rigoletto dons evening dress, and his ‘fool’s cap’ is passed among the company. Alden suggests that the opera critiques the ‘abuses of monarchy’: ‘It is a nightmare about an all-powerful and irresponsible ruler’. Too true: Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse ran into problems with the censors precisely because it seemed to portray the cynical immorality of a monarch. But, such a dismissive disregard relies on absolute power. What is there here to distinguish the Duke from his fellow club members? He brandishes a sword in ‘Questa o quella’ - a phallic flourish or a moment of Giovanni-esque defiance? Is it the Duke’s way with the women - he is according to Alden a ‘personification of unbridled libido’ - that ordains him unqualified power? And, if so, what are we to make of the fact that Sparafucile and his sister Maddalena seem to be engaged in an incestuous relationship?

Worn out by these unfathomable and irritating details, one feels strangely detached from the events playing before one’s eyes. Thank heavens, therefore, for a superb cast of soloists. As the eponymous anti-hero, Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey was stunning. He brought a conversational naturalness to the jester’s outburst and intimacies, fully appreciating the psychological depth and complexity of his character - regardless of the staging, his Rigoletto was not ‘all-powerful and irresponsible’ but rather a flawed man governed by a virulent desire for vengeance and retribution, his sense of triumph tragically undermined by the desecration and loss of his only love. The jester’s long Act 2 recitativo accompagnato, in which he bitterly compares himself with the assassin, was a portrait of chastened self-awareness combined with passionate self-pity. Kelsey injected both defiance and lamentation into the conversational lines, reaching out to the audience and for the first time winning our sympathy. Elsewhere - as when the courtiers called for vengeance at the end of the first scene - Rigoletto’s long-smouldering hatred was conveyed by a well-judged roughness in the voice which suggested a fateful grievance against the world and an internalised torture.

Barry Bank carried off the Duke’s superficial gallantry with cynical ease and complacent grace. The top notes glided; the tone rang brightly. He sounded almost too good to be true; it was no wonder the unworldly Gilda was enrapt.

Peter Rose’s Sparafucile was an embodiment of dark menace. His cavernous bass suggested a man who knows he is damned but who, like an East-End gangster, adheres to a mysterious but steadfast code of honour. Rose cautiously negotiated his contract with the equally villainous jester, as if feeling through the darkness of a moral quagmire.

As Gilda, Anna Christy brought an alluring richness but not the necessary naivety to the role. The tone was appealing and the coloratura accurate and florid, richly expressive of her love for her father. But Christy lacked the tender, childlike simplicity of one who does not even know her father’s name. ‘Caro nome’, in which Gilda reflects on the name of the one who has first awoken her to love, was vocally accomplished but did not always match superlative technique with psychological expression.

Justina Gringyte (Maddalena), Diana Montague (Giovanna) and David Stout (Monterone) made strong contributions also. The male chorus remained on-stage throughout and sang virulently; but their sexual voyeurism, the lynching of Monterone, and their indulgence is outlandish sexual display when Gilda was murdered seemed oddly out-of-place in a gentleman’s club - especially when, in the latter instance, moments before they had been sedately reading the newspapers …

Overall, a major problem was that despite the tense and visceral musical fabric drawn from the orchestra by conductor Graeme Jenkins, the dramatic momentum was weak. Too often Rigoletto was to be found asleep in the chair and the scene changes were clunky. Thus, there was a noticeable hiatus between the two scenes of Act 1: we stared at gauzy black curtain while furniture was shifted noisily shifted beyond. Moreover, too often innermost conversations were presented in a dislocated manner. For example, when Gilda and Rigoletto conversed earnestly and intimately they were placed at opposing extremes of the fore-stage, facing the audience. If they cannot connect with each other, how can we emphasise with their tragedy?

In Verdi’s score, after the conventional operatic ‘last breaths’, Gilda is granted a conventional ‘resurrection’: the nineteenth-century heroine’s standard final words of forgiveness and self-condemnation. Verdi’s opera must close with Rigoletto’s wild cry of grief and despair: ‘The curse is fulfilled.’ But, Alden’s Gilda rises like an angel and floats towards a glaring light, presumably to join her mother in the afterlife. Alden declares that Rigoletto is an ‘incendiary work’; but, here he unequivocally quenches the fire. The cold brightness that illuminates Gilda’s final steps ‘blinds’ us - the black veil that has separated us from the action has smothered the flame of sympathy too.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Duke of Mantua, Barry Banks; Rigoletto, Quinn Kelsey; Gilda, Anna Christy; Sparafucile, Peter Rose; Maddalena, Justine Gringyte; Giovanna, Diana Montague; Count Monterone, David Stout; Marullo, George Humphreys; Borsa, Anthony Gregory; Count Ceprano, Barnaby Rea; Countess Ceprano, Susan Rann; Page, Joanne Appleby; Usher, Paul Sheehan; Conductor, Graeme Jenkins; Director, Christopher Alden; Designer, Michael Levine; Lighting Designer, Duane Schuler; Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera. English National Opera, London Coliseum, Thursday 13th February 2014.

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