Verdi's Rigoletto is arguably all about a curse. Before it became the opera we know today, its working title for several months was in fact la maledizione (the curse). The curse as a motif replays for the duration of the opera musically: Rigoletto sings the same words over the same music five separate times to convey the importance Monterone's curse and it is of course, the curse that literally has the last word. How does this very nineteenth-century Italian idea translate for modern audiences? Do they see the power of a curse on an unfortunate family? Or is it more of a melodramatic effect that today translates ludicrously?
Perhaps it's neither; perhaps this curse has become relegated to the background of the story, simply taken as a part of the opera's heightened melodramatic fabric, while the real focus of the opera for modern audiences is Rigoletto and Gilda. The opera's name, after all, was changed from "the curse” to match the eponymous anti-hero's, lending a different focus even in the nineteenth century to the opera's potential meanings.
And yet, what of the relationship between Rigoletto and Gilda? There could be many facets to explore depending on when the opera is set: by modern standards Rigoletto's method of keeping his daughter secluded from the outside world save a weekly church visit would be considered extremely eccentric (at best); alternatively, this misogynistic behavior also highlights the patriarchal bonds that most women were subjected to in the nineteenth century.
Christopher Aldenchose to highlight the latter, and it is the first production I've seen that really teases out the inherent misogynist messages from the framework of the opera. Alden's production sees women tossed around by their hair, their portraits defamed, and, perhaps most importantly, women dominated by men and made to be degraded sex-playthings (quite literally in one scene). There has been much musicological ink spilled over the idea that opera is anti-women and it's refreshing to see a production that nods to the academic world whilst also trying something new to engage and confound audiences. Of course the opera is misogynistic by virtue of context whether historical or stylistic: it's no secret that a patriarchy existed in the nineteenth century and that composers and librettists perhaps unwittingly inscribed the dominant values of their societies for the sake of posterity.
Having said that, however, it is almost a shame that Alden chose this as his focus. There is much potential for recuperative value in productions like these—by highlighting the male dominated world of the past Alden hopes that audiences will learn something for the present. Perhaps the scene with the most potential to impact audiences in this way, as I hint above, is the orgy at the end of Act III, which begins as Sparfucile slits Gilda's throat. In a world where we are ever more concerned by the all-pervasive power of pornography, productions like these remind us just how disconcerting scenes like this can be; how distant they are from most peoples' reality; and, most importantly, how emotionally damaging they can be for the people involved—from point of production to that of consumption.
Alden made quite a bold move, all things considered. But he used the wrong opera to do so. In making the opera more of a pseudo-political statement--we are, don't forget, in the middle of debate about the censorship of pornography in this country--Alden has lost sight of poignancy that exists between Rigoletto and Gilda musically, and, in essence, the other inherent meaning of their relationship. Although Gilda exists within a patriarchy, why can the relationship between father and daughter not be recuperative in itself? Family values may not be as sexy as pornography but the love a father has for his daughter is absolutely at the center of the opera, a love that, for me, erodes any sense of anti-feminine meaning.
Leaving interpretations aside, this was by far the best Italian opera I have ever heard at ENO: Barry Banks sang a very strong Duke and acted the role disgustingly—a perfect representation. Anna Christy sang one of the most secure Gilda's I have ever heard and brought real artistry into the Coliseum: her cadenza for Caro nome and at the end of the Act I duet were both a pleasure to experience. The supporting roles were also, miraculously, well-sung indeed, but the standout was definitely Diana Montague who sang a sultry and deeply complex Maddalena.
But the biggest accolades go to Quinn Kelsey, who sang a robust and multifaceted Rigoletto. His use of dynamics, explosive consonants, and pure Verdian color executed perfectly made him one of the most impressive interpreters of the role I've ever seen. He made "Cortigiani vil razza” sound easy (no small feat) and in general articulated the hidden facets of the role expertly.
This is a must see for the singing if no other reason; who knows, perhaps Alden's production may inadvertently encourage modern audiences to see Rigoletto as a maledizione once again.
Photos: Alastair Muir