Sumptuously designed, but is this Rigoletto a ‘keeper’?

Verdi: Rigoletto ***

English National Opera, 13th February 2014

Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto) (c) Alastair Muir/ENO

Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto)
© Alastair Muir

The final revival in 2009 of Jonathan Miller’s Little Italy mafioso production of Rigoletto, a classic at English National Opera since it opened in 1982, was my first Opera Britannia review. By a neat dint of symmetry, this production by Christopher Alden at the same address proves to be my final assignment. Alden originally staged the opera for the Chicago Lyric in 2000, where it met with howls of derision from the press. After being quietly dumped, ENO and the Canadian Opera Company decided to revive its fortunes, its 2011 Canadian première producing a similar response from Toronto’s conservative audience. Perhaps it will fare better on this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, those who were outraged by the director’s take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream (myself included) or scathing about his Freudian treatment of Die Fledermaus, will find little to provoke a similarly extreme response here, just a sense of mild befuddlement.

Michael Levine’s set is sumptuously handsome. Alden doesn’t return the opera to its 16th century Mantua setting, but to the time of its composition, circa 1850, in the oak-panelled ‘gaming room’ of a gentlemen’s club, all potted palms and wreathed in smoky haze. Alden’s production is a study of male chauvinist oppression of women – apart from Gilda, they largely have a silent role as the whores, raped daughters or playthings for the gentry. There is the suspicion that Rigoletto is looking back on events; he spends much of the evening sedentary, slumped awkwardly in a leather armchair before the drop curtain.

Barry Banks (The Duke of Mantua) © Alastair Muir/ENO

Barry Banks (The Duke of Mantua)
© Alastair Muir/ENO

Levine’s single set remains throughout, with no scene changes to take us to Rigoletto’s home or the run-down tavern by the river in Act III. This isn’t entirely damaging in itself, but Alden takes little notice of the libretto’s stage directions, planting characters in scenes in which they do not appear, damaging the comprehensibility of the plot. My companion, whose first Rigoletto this was, expressed appreciation afterwards that I had outlined the plot to her beforehand. The chorus was present throughout most of the action; the opening scene of Act III was almost played out as an entertainment for them, Barry Banks donning armour to deliver “Women are changeable” (“La donna è mobile” – James Fenton’s English translation is retained from Miller’s production). The storm scene is acted out in front of a slow-motion orgy. The Duke doesn’t sneak into Rigoletto’s house, but swaggers up to his table and is served a bowl of soup by Giovanna, all totally unnoticed by Rigoletto or Gilda. Considering its single set, there are lengthy dumb shows while noisy scene changes took place, causing tension to sag. Giovanna (Diana Montague) here bears an uncanny resemblance to the portrait of Gilda’s mother, which might explain her continued presence beyond Act I.

The abduction of Gilda is unintentionally comic, from the swaying entry of the chorus, to the complete non-participation of Rigoletto in holding the ladder (contrary to what the courtiers report in Act II). Gilda ascends the ladder, which drops from on high. Is she expressing her longing to escape from this sheltered life? Her father remains stubbornly seated throughout. Decisions such as this rob the production of its dramatic intensity, so vivdly expressed in Verdi’s music. Act II occasionally resembles farce, with the Duke seeking Gilda, curled up on the floor six feet away. It would have provoked a response of “She’s behind you!” at a pantomime. The great vengeance duet at the end of Act II found the singers upstaged by events going on behind them; the hanging of Monterone and the wild gesticulations of the girl who is presumably his daughter. The singers deserved more.

Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto) and Anna Christy (Gilda) (c) Alastair Muir/ENO

Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto) and Anna Christy (Gilda)
© Alastair Muir/ENO

Some of Alden’s decisions hit home. The red rose petals showered on Gilda during the love duet are later strewn on her deathbed and the oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere created by the presence of the chorus does make sense in the context of making Gilda seem trapped. This was particularly effective when the men screen Rigoletto from the Duke having his wicked way with Gilda on the couch. For the finale, Alden clears the stage of furniture and chorus, and has Gilda walking off into the light, while Rigoletto curls up in despair. When Alden trusts Verdi, the drama packs a more emotional punch.

The performance really didn’t grab the audience by the lapels until well into Act II, but there was much fine singing. Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey, last seen here in Les pêcheurs de perles, rose to the challenges of the title role magnificently. He sang the role in Toronto. He is a bear of a man and launched into “Filthy rabble, you liars, you cowards” (“Cortigiani vil razza dannata”) with ferocious strength. However, he can spin a legato, his rich baritone caressing the line in “Ah, weep now, my daughter” (“Piangi, fanciulla”) and sang a lovely soft opening to vengeance duet, correctly observing Verdi’s piano marking in the score. Dramatically, he was more comfortable with playing the leering jester than the doting father – there was a stand-offish distance between him and Anna Christy’s Gilda for much of the evening – but that’s probably down to the director.

I found it difficult to warm to Christy’s glassy tone, just too clinical and colourless however accomplished her singing. She indulged in some tricky ornamentation in the close of “Dearest name” (“Caro nome”) where some of the coloratura descents weren’t ideally clean, but flung in a spectacular E flat to crown the vengeance duet.

Anna Christy (Gilda) (c) Alastair Muir/ENO

Anna Christy (Gilda)
© Alastair Muir/ENO

Making his role debut, Barry Banks’ focused tenor, tight vibrato and easy top provided plenty of ‘ping’ as the Duke, rising to the challenge of some of the scores best known numbers with aplomb, despite having to sing much of the role from a horizontal position. Costumed as a preening middle-aged dandy, he conveyed an unsympathetic portrait of the lecherous womaniser.

The Sparafucile of Peter Rose was a showman, equipped with a sepulchral, but soft bass. It was just a pity that his encounter with Rigoletto happened in such a public space. The vampish Maddalena of Justina Gringyte, towering over Banks at the curtain call, was fabulous, her ripe mezzo the perfect foil for Christy’s soprano in the quartet. Following her apprenticeship as a Jette Parker Young Artist in Bow Street, this was Gringyte’s ENO debut. One hopes the management takes note and pencils her in for larger roles forthwith.

David Stout was unusually underpowered delivering Monterone’s curse, but there was solid support from George Humphreys, Antony Gregory and Barnaby Rea as courtiers Marullo, Borsa and Ceprano.

The orchestra, under Graeme Jenkins, got off to a nervous start, notably the brass in the Prelude, but once on full swing, there was some stylish playing in evidence, and plenty of muscle too, especially in the tempest of Act III.

This stylish production is certainly eye-catching and musically strong. Alden’s ideas are interesting, even if one doesn’t always appreciate his tinkering. Whether it has the longevity of its predecessor remains to be seen.

This review originally appeared on Opera Britannia.

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