Miller’s ‘mafioso’ Rigoletto still powerfully persuasive

Verdi: Rigoletto****

English National Opera, 21st September 2009

(c) Chris Christodoulou/ ENO

Michael Fabiano (The Duke) and Anthony Michaels-Moore (Rigoletto) © Chris Christodoulou/ ENO

Jonathan Miller’s mafioso take on Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered at English National Opera in 1982, since when it’s become a company stalwart. This is its twelfth revival and the powers that be obviously made Miller “an offer he couldn’t refuse” as he’s back to direct a new cast in this classic production. Updating the action from 16th century Mantua to New York in the 1950s was a radical move back in the 1980s, Miller virtually inventing time-shift opera. Audiences barely raise an eyebrow now when opera plots do the time-warp: Tosca in Nazi-occupied Italy, Giulio Cesare mixing Bollywood with the British Empire, and Miller’s own Armani-clad Così fan tutte complete with mobile phones for the Royal Opera. What is undeniable is that the Little Italy setting works brilliantly for the plot transposition; the Duke of Mantua becomes ‘the Duke’, a Mafia boss surrounded by loyal heavies, whilst Rigoletto, the court jester, becomes a cynical barman serving in his master’s hotel. Rigoletto and Gilda, his daughter, live in a tenement in a dead-end street, whilst Sparafucile’s seedy inn becomes…a seedy bar. The only slight difficulty I found with adjusting to the setting was in believing that a 1950s Gilda would really have remained such an innocent teenager as her 16th century counterpart.

Although many in the Coliseum audience will have seen the production before, this revival is of interest chiefly because of a number of significant debuts; this performance was Anthony Michaels-Moore’s first Rigoletto in this country. It also marked UK debuts for the Canadian soprano, Katherine Whyte, as well as Amercian tenor Michael Fabiano and his compatriot Stephen Lord, the conductor.

Rumours from rehearsals suggested that the Duke of Michael Fabiano was going to cause a bit of a sensation, a prediction which didn’t quite materialise in the event. He was a winner of the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions in 2007, a process chronicled in a documentary screened very recently on SkyArts, which revealed him as an intense, ambitious young man with an exciting voice.

(c) Chris Christodoulou/ ENO

Michael Fabiano (The Duke) and Madeleine Shaw (Maddalena) © Chris Christodoulou/ ENO

At the moment, he seems to suit lyric tenor roles well and has an attractive Carreras-like timbre about him, but I suspect the voice will darken in time and heavier repertoire will beckon. Last night was his role debut and it was certainly very promising, although his top notes sounded strained. With a New Jersey background, coming from a family with Italian heritage, the updated Duke fits him like a glove; the sharp dresser, the arrogant swagger, his smooth way with the ladies are all keenly captured. Most of all, Fabiano’s believable as the complete bastard the Duke really is – he’s all too ready to move from one girl to the next and his seductions of both Gilda and Maddalena look well-honed. Many tenors are too elegant and genteel but here this guy’s all too dangerous to know. At the start of Act II you get the sense that his overriding emotions are of anger and frustration that he didn’t get to have his wicked way with Gilda. Fabiano does the light humour well, the gag with the juke-box which sticks at the start of “La donna è mobile” (‘Women abandon’ us in this translation) is brought off slickly. He’s already sung at La Scala and Naples and has his forthcoming Met debut in January singing Raffaele in Verdi’s Stiffelio alongside José Cura. I hope we see more of him in the UK as his is a promising voice. A career to follow with interest.

(c) Chris Christodoulou/ ENO

Katherine Whyte (Gilda) © Chris Christodoulou/ENO

Katherine Whyte, a recent graduate of the Juilliard Opera Centre, made less of an impact as Gilda. She has an attractive soprano and coped well with the coloratura demanded in “Caro nome” (“Dearest name of my first love”), but it seemed underpowered and found difficulty projecting across the orchestra, particularly in her duets. Her acting was most convincing – understated, but affecting – particularly in the aftermath of her rape by the Duke in Act II, where she cannot even bear to make eye contact with her father let alone allow him to touch her. She resists grand operatic gestures, as you’d expect from Miller’s direction, and has a winning sincerity. She sang Susanna recently and has an Atlanta Opera debut as Euridice planned, which surely seem the right sort of repertoire for now.

The main reason for going to see this run of performances though is for Anthony Michaels-Moore’s portrayal of Rigoletto. His appearances in this country are all too rare and questions should be asked why we don’t see him here more frequently as he is, in my opinion, our leading Verdi baritone. Since his 2002 Macbeth for the Royal Opera, the only Verdi he’s performed here has been his Conte di Luna in Il trovatore in 2007. His characterisation of the hunchback is perfect; as the barman he has quite clearly riled each and every one of the Duke’s mob; they’ve all been on the sharp end of his acid tongue and are quick to get one over on him in return. His leering mockery of Monterone in Act I, whose daughter is the Duke’s latest ‘vicitm’ is in sharp contrast to the nervy, suspicious father we see later. Michaels-Moore has a rich voice of leonine strength and refulgent tone; he spins a great legato, especially in the “Piangi, fanciulla” (“Ah, weep now, my daughter”) duet in Act II. Rigoletto, the father, is over-protective rather than tender here; in the Act I duet, he makes no physical contact with Gilda at all, whilst in Act II he cannot face her as she makes her revelation, only taking her hand after their duet. It’s at the end of the opera, when he’s clasping his dying daughter in his arms, that he finally allows Rigoletto’s emotions to show and it’s all the more powerful as a result. This is baritone singing of the highest quality from Michaels-Moore and I sincerely hope that the ENO and ROH managements engage him for more Verdi roles soon.

(c) Chris Christodoulou/ ENO

Anthony Michaels-Moore (Rigoletto) © Chris Christodoulou/ENO

Sparafucile, the professional hit-man, and Maddalena, his sister, are well portrayed by Brindley Sherratt and Madeleine Shaw; Sherratt plumbs the vocal depths with ease and offers plenty of menace, whilst Shaw manages to be both alluring in the quartet and sincere in her wish to save the young stranger who seems destined to ‘sleep with the fishes’. Iain Paterson’s Monterone bristles with outrage whilst James Gower’s Ceprano does a nice line in smug gestures.

Stephen Lord conducted the ENO Orchestra well, after an initial mismatch of tempi between tenor and orchestra, and whipped up a great storm in Act III, shrieking piccolo darting through the battering brass and off-stage chorus’ howling wind. Even if you’ve seen this production countless times before, I’d recommend making another visit, not least for Michaels-Moore’s magnificent Rigoletto and to catch an early glimpse of Fabiano.

This review originally appeared on Opera Britannia. 

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