Verdi: Rigoletto

The Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 12 February 2009 4 stars

RigolettoThis Rigoletto presented at the Royal Opera House during the 2008-09 season can be seen as work that is twice established within the tradition. This is both because of the status of Verdi's opera within the repertoire, and because of David McVicar's production: this being its third Royal Opera revival from 2001, Michael Vale's set design has become nearly canonical. And I ought to say that this Olivier Award-nominated staging serves well an opera which in this latest variation found a outstanding cast: Leo Nucci as Rigoletto, Francesco Meli as the Duke of Mantua, and Ekaterina Siurina as Gilda offered a memorable first-night performance, supported by conductor Daniel Oren's passionate reading.

To start with the staging, McVicar's staging – revived by Daniel Dooner – exploits the darkest sides of the opera, leaving space for the performers to develop its ambiguities. This is clear as the curtain rises: the darkness of the setting and the crookedness of the stage elements reveal a world of cynicism, vulgarity and primary instincts. This monochromatic thematisation is evident also in the exploitation of primary colours for dramatic purposes: Gilda is provided with an immaculate white dress; the Duke switches from a luxurious red costume to a black one (when he is seducing what he thinks to be Rigoletto's mistress); Rigoletto himself wears only dark colours.

In the very well conceived programme notes, Professor of Political Theory Terrell Carver describes Verdi's Mantua as a 'political dystopia'. This observation is relevant in light of Vale's stage design. In fact, Rigoletto is part of a dystopic universe, and the farcical elements of the opera make it even more complicated to represent. When Verdi asked Francesco Maria Piave to create a libretto based on Victor Hugo's drama Le roi s'amuse (1832), he knew that the complexity of the character of Rigoletto (originally 'Triboulet') was inherent to the power of the subject – 'worthy of Shakespeare', as Verdi famously stated.

A dark universe is set up on stage, then. Yet, in Rigoletto what is concealed is as important as what happens in front of the audience: a rape – Gilda's rape – was could not be shown on stage in 1851, when this opera (which was heavily censored for its controversial political, social and religious elements) was first performed.

Impressive dramatic performances amplified the staging's connotations. Leo Nucci confirmed his talent for Verdian roles: one of the world's most acclaimed baritones, he has recently declared that when he goes on stage to perform this opera, 'it's not Leo Nucci appearing but rather Rigoletto'. I have to admit that despite the fact that his performance was affected by a certain vocal fatigue, his acting effectively complemented his singing. His pathetic gait, a characteristic that he maintained during the whole performance, made his Rigoletto a desperately painful type. Moreover, Nucci demonstrated his ability to expand his vocal range from a distressed tenderness to ravishing rage within the same phrase – one example being the first duet with Gilda, in which he recalls his nameless wife and gives vent to his obsession with his daughter's protection.

RigolettoRigoletto is a challenging role insofar as Verdi differentiated it from all the other characters in a significant stylistic way: he sings in a declamatory style, rather than interpreting full arias. Contrasted with that, the Duke of Mantua is the vehicle for more conventional melodic lines, which Verdi filled with charmingly vicious qualities.

The antagonism between these two stylistic approaches defines the opposition between the characters. Both Nucci and Meli were able to exploit the Verdian challenge. In fact, Meli represented on stage a tremendously convincing Duke. His youth – he was born in 1980 – perhaps helped him to depict his role with fresh naiveté and to give it an aura of wicked sincerity. This successfully clashed with the scheming qualities of his jester, Rigoletto. Moreover, Meli's accurate diction allowed the listeners to understand every word. His first 'T'amo' to Gilda was so dense with violence that one could perceive the abduction and the rape that the girl would undergo. On the whole, Meli's Covent Garden debut was a promising one.

Women are problematic in Rigoletto, as they are presented as either alien to earthly corruption, or only exploited as objects of love or as memories of the past. In her rendition of Gilda, Ekaterina Siurina was vocally impeccable. Her pitching was always precise and she was vocally at ease in this role (Gilda was one of the first parts she interpreted in the early stages of her career). Her physicality dominated some of the scenes. For instance, during 'Caro nome' her use of the space, gradually embracing the whole stage through the length of her singing, was particularly effective. This was also thanks to movement directors Leah Hausman and Sarah Fahie (the latter being revival director).

The combination of choreography with subtle lighting (Paule Constable) made Gilda's solo scenes memorable: her climbing the stairs with the stage rotating, at the end of her first aria, with her voice getting thinner and thinner, was an emotional moment. Gentle strings supported her timid singing after she had kissed a man, the Duke, for the first time.

What Siurina's character was lacking was perhaps some recognizable individual touch: her Gilda was, after all, quite conventional. Her acting was a bit algid, compared to the puissant physicality of the two men Gilda loves. Yet I believe that such a predictable portrayal was part of the choreographic conception of the staging. Presenting the character of Gilda as a young woman untouched by earthly matters, the emphasis was placed on the lack of understanding between her, on the one hand, and Rigoletto and the Duke on the other. This was disturbingly evident in the scene following the abduction and the rape: Gilda and her father sing of their unutterable pain standing on opposite sides of the stage.

Gilda traverses three stages of tragic maturation (from purity, to the experience of violence, to death), which Siurina mastered vocally. This dramatic and melodic growth parallels her father's psychological journey when he at first menaces, then begs, and finally cries in order to have his daughter released. This moment in Act II represented a performance of artistic expertise and personal passion: Nucci's vocal inventions were dense and touching. Given Nucci's strong personal rendition, it will be interesting to see Paolo Gavanelli's take, during the performance on 12 and 16 February, in which he features in the title role.

All these characteristics were effectively summarized in the Prelude. The orchestra offered a nuanced performance under Daniel Oren, whose interpretation of Verdi's score was a passionate one. The four-note motif in the overture conveyed all the pain to come. Dynamics were often extreme: the crescendo during Monterone's (Iain Paterson) curse hit me with its power; and I was equally impressed by the frantic adieu between Gilda and the Duke in Act I. These drastic rhythmic variations filled even the most delicate moments with a sense of fragility and imminent catastrophe.

Smaller roles were excellently delivered too. In particular, Kurt Rydl potrayed a vigorous Sparafucile. His intense bass voice often surmounted Nucci's softer register, so as to confer a further level of interpretation on the story the story: Rigoletto is quashed by his actions, and his desire for revenge sounds feeble and defenceless compared to Sparafucile's vocal boldness. The chorus was equally convincing in their often unison mockery of the deformed jester.

Nucci's interpretation highlighted the despotic characteristics of Rigoletto. His relationship with Gilda is a crescendo of imperatives: 'Piangi!' (Cry!), 'Va'!' (Go!), 'Parla!' (Speak!), he sings. This is until the last order, one which cannot be obeyed: 'Non morir' (Don't die). In fact, Rigoletto is a character who is not able to relate to other people: he is too concentrated on his self-mourning to feel what others feel. Not even while witnessing the death of his daughter can he sympathize with her: she was in love with the Duke, in spite of everything, but Rigoletto's rage (towards the one who stole his daughter and towards his fate) is stronger than his will to understand her.

RigolettoIn spite of his monster-like attributes, his social role (a jester), and his behavioural ambiguities, Rigoletto is disgracefully linked to an earthly environment. What ties him to a mundane universe are his cynicism, his fatherly love, and his loneliness. Rigoletto blames nature and fate from the beginning ('O uomini! O natura! Vil scellerato mi faceste voi!; 'O mankind! O nature! It was you who made me evil and corrupt!') to the end, with his final evocation of the curse, la maledizione, that he claims as a reason for his tragic fate. It is Verdi's favourite bard who could respond that: 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves'.

This latest first-rate performance re-established the power of this opera, which remains rightfully one of the best within the repertoire. Nucci, Meli, and Siurina, together with the orchestra directed by Oren, were successful in making all the ambiguities and pain of Rigoletto resound strongly once again.

By Marina Romani

Photo Credits: Clive Barda

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RigolettoRelated articles:

Report of the Royal Opera's Insight Evening on Rigoletto
Interview
with Leo Nucci (January 2009), who will play Rigoletto during this run
Review of the previous revival of David McVicar's Rigoletto at Covent Garden
Interview with Paolo Gavanelli, who plays the title role at some performances of this run


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