Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Rigoletto – Carlos Álvarez (baritone)
Duke – Liparit Avetisyan (tenor)
Gilda – Lisette Oropesa (soprano)
Sparafucile – Brindley Sherratt (bass)
Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera/Antonio Pappano
rec. live, 16 & 24 September 2021, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Extras: An introduction to Rigoletto: What makes it such a powerful opera?
Opus Arte OABD7303D Blu-ray [147]

Unlike many of Verdi’s operas, there is little or nothing in the score of Rigoletto which is specific to any historical period or location. The original play on which the libretto was based was situated in the heady early Renaissance court of Francis I of France, a watchword for libertinism and general moral laxity even by the highly dubious ethical standards of the age. For Verdi’s opera the plot was transferred to the ducal court at Mantua during the same period, where the ruler had no reputation of any higher standard than the French king. And the action of the play, with the unscrupulous and powerful suitor seducing an innocent maiden under the guise of a penniless student, only to discard her as soon as she has been robbed of her virginity, is unfortunately a scenario which fits all times and all ages. Producers over the years have resituated the action to all locations, most famously for British audiences with Jonathan Miller’s 1970s staging for English National Opera which bodily translated the action to the era of the New York Mafia in the 1950s with no appreciable loss in either dramatic verisimilitude or atmosphere.

This makes it all the more startling when the curtain rises in this new Covent Garden production on a tableau depicting a painting by Caravaggio and every indication from the costumes that the action is actually taking place in a decadent Renaissance court of the sixteenth century. But this is deliberate misdirection; we discover in due course that the party being held at the art-collector Duke’s house is a fancy dress ball, and with the appearance of Monterone as an uninvited and unwanted guest we suddenly realise that we are indeed in a contemporary setting. Thereafter we are confronted with all the brutality of modern life, with Sparafucile a surprisingly conscientious gangster specialising in hit killings, his sister a drug-addled whore who can only rouse herself to perform her sexual services once she is suitably intoxicated, a Duke who is not only feckless but also viciously sadistic, and so on. And, given the nature of Rigoletto, such an interpretation works well and would be a good fit to the tinta of Verdi’s music.

But therein lies the rub: would be. Indeed, the trajectory from the superbly realised Caravaggio tableau as the curtain rises in mid-prelude to the desolate river bank where Rigoletto is seeking to dispose of the body of his hapless daughter, is wonderfully mirrored by the scenery and costumes which focus relentlessly on the tragedy of events. And then the whole belief of the audience is suddenly shattered by an image which simply jars in the context. Why is it necessary that Rigoletto should find, after the abduction of his daughter, that the courtiers have substituted a plastic inflatable sex doll in her bed? Why do those same courtiers mocking Rigoletto in the following scene adopt a series of jerky spasmodic movements which resemble puppets? (If the intention is to mirror the Gilbert and Sullivan “cat-like tread” parody of Verdi in The Pirates of Penzance by having Verdi repay the compliment, it misfires badly.) Why persist in illuminating the upstairs room at Sparacile’s tavern during the thunderstorm, giving the impression that libidinous Duke has fallen asleep in mid-intercourse? And why show us a quite gratuitously violent scene of Monterone being blinded by the Duke at the end of the party scene? (Surely any properly fastidious art collector would have employed henchmen to perform such unsavoury tasks out of sight.)

These individual incidents, often of quite brief duration, are not sufficiently disturbing to invalidate the whole purpose of the exercise – as is so often the case in modern examples of the excesses of modern producers of Regietheater. They are simply lapses in tone, and sometimes run in infuriating contradiction to Verdi’s manifest intentions. At the end of Act One, when Verdi is going full out in the orchestra to depict Rigoletto’s despair, to have him clasping a grossly badly-made sex doll is simply risible; I am amazed to find that the Covent Garden audience, not usually a body known to miss the opportunity for a good laugh, failed to respond accordingly. Oliver Mears, the producer, is the new head of productions at the Royal Opera; and it may be that the lack of a dispassionate critical eye on such unwanted excrescences may be  to be blame. But the fact (as I gather from reviews of a revival of this same production earlier this season) that such incidents remain in the current staging do not encourage optimism.

Musically too the production is something of a mixed bag. Carlos Álvarez has made a considerable impression in the title role over the years, but at this stage of his career there is on occasions a pronounced unsteadiness in his tone and sometimes he lands himself on the flat side of the note. Nevertheless he remains an imposing theatrical presence. Liparit Avetisyan is suitably carefree as the Duke (he could perhaps curtail his ‘silent movie’ eye-rolling somewhat) but appears as if he would have preferred a less obviously vicious characterisation of his part. At one point, when with an overly melodramatic gesture he throws himself to his knees, his pitching suffers, although otherwise he is musical and delicate in his delivery. Of the three principals Lisette Oropesa as Gilda is the most stellar, delicate in her approach to the coloratura and deserving of the heartfelt response she receives from the audience.

Best among the supporting cast is Brindley Sherratt as Sparafucile, a hulking brute of a character who can really chill the blood with his sense of menace (and superbly delivered low notes). Ramona Zaharia as his sister is also effective during the quartet in the final Act. The Duke’s henchmen are a characterful lot – Mears attempts with some success to give them individual personalities – but Eric Greene is severely miscast as Monterone; he lacks both the bass resonance and sheer volume which are required for the character whose curse is after all the basic leitmotif of the opera. His whimpering moans during the silence after the party scene evoke the wrong sort of pity – quite apart from covering the ominous quiet music which opens the following scene. Sir Antonio Pappano conducts with his usual verve and dramatic attack, and deserves credit for pressing ahead and denying the audience the opportunity for intrusive applause after La donna e mobile at a point when Verdi’s music so urgently demands progress.  The recording is generally excellent, although there are a couple of points at which upstage singers seem to go slightly ‘off mike’, and the backstage banda during the Duke’s party is insufficiently audible. The booklet is basic, giving no track listings and synopsis in English only.  Subtitles come in English, German, French, Japanese and Korean, but oddly not Italian.

There are some interesting comments by producer and singers about the opera in the course of the two brief documentary extras on the disc; it is clear, despite my occasional demurrals in the course of this review, that they do Verdi the credit of taking his involvement in the timeless plot seriously. Probably not the only version of Rigoletto for a collection, then; but as an example of a modern approach – and possible supplement to the original video of Jonathan Miller’s ENO production which has disgracefully been allowed to go out of print – it is a definite improvement on a good many less well-intentioned rivals.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Roy Westbrook (January 2023)

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Other cast and production staff:
Maddalena – Ramona Zaharia (mezzo-soprano)
Monterone – Eric Greene (bass)
Ceprano – Blaise Malaba (baritone)
Countess Ceprano – Amanda Baldwin (soprano)
Marullo – Dominic Sedgwick (baritone)
Borsa – Egor Zhuravskii (tenor)
Giovanna Ksenia Nikolaieva (mezzo-soprano)
Oliver Mears, director
Simon Lima Holdsworth, set designer
Ilona Karas, costume designer
Fabiana Piccoli, lighting designer
Anna Morrissey, movement director

Video details
Picture format: 16:9; Sound formats LPCM 2.0: DTS-HD
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Sung in Italian; Subtitles: English, German, French, Japanese, Korean