Wednesday 19 February 2014

A powerful performance: Rigoletto at the ENO

Verdi - Rigolette: ENO at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Feb 13 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Powerful performances in Christopher Alden's new production of Rigoletto at the Coliseum

Quinn Kelsey and Anna Christy in Christopher Alden's production of Verdi's Rigoletto - ENO - Photo credit Alistair Muir
Quinn Kelsey and Anna Christy
Photo Credit: Alistair Muir
Powerful performances by Quinn Kelsey as Rigoletto and Anna Christy as Gilda made this version of Verdi’s Rigoletto a pleasure to watch. Directed by Christopher Alden and conducted by Graeme Jenkins, formerly with Dallas Opera, Rigoletto was set for the most part in a sumptuous 19th century gentleman’s club.

A play with a notorious history at the time Rigoletto has a lot to live up to with modern audiences. Verdi based Rigoletto on the story ‘Le Roi s’amuse’ written in 1832 by Victor Hugo (1802-1885). The play is ostensibly about the 16th century King Fancis I of France who was a great patron of the arts and is probably most famous for his role in standardising the French language and in the Italian Wars (1494-1559). He is known to have kept mistresses as well as two wives, and has been portrayed as a womaniser albeit a chivalrous one. However the play was closed after its premier because it was thought to contain insulting references about King Louis-Philippe (1773-1850). After a lengthy court battle, which Hugo lost, the play was banned for fifty years.

In 1850 when Verdi was writing Rigoletto for La Fenice opera house in Venice the fuss had not died down. Hugo’s play was still censored and it took some sleight of hand including changing the setting of the play from France to Mantua in Italy, deleting or altering the most sexually risqué scenes, and changing the names of the characters, to get the Austrian censors to allow it to be performed. Premiered in 1851, Rigoletto was a sell out success especially the catchy and popular aria ‘La donna è mobile’ sung by the Duke of Mantua.

Rigoletto, a court jester, terrorises the men of the court by reminding them of their wives’ infidelities with the Duke. Meanwhile the Duke has set his sights on Gilda not knowing that she is Rigoletto’s daughter (presumably he would not care anyway!). The courtiers decide to get their revenge on Rigoletto by stealing Gilda who they presume is his mistress (a blindfolded and mistaken Rigoletto helps them. Once in the palace Gilda falls prey to the Duke’s advances and by the time Rigoletto finds her it is too late.

In revenge Rigoletto organises the assassination of the Duke, but this backfires. The sister of the assassin falls in love with the Duke and, in order to please her, the assassin agrees to kill the next man to enter the house and pass his corpse off as the Duke. Unfortunately, fixing the nadir of Rigoletto, this next ‘man’ turns out to be Gilda, dressed as a boy, who has come to prevent the Duke’s death.

The version by the ENO has gone some way to restoring the sexually charged nature of the original play. Christopher Alden was definitely out to shock. There is no female chorus and the only women that are there are all objectified regardless of their role in the story. The sense of voyeurism in this production was enhanced by the use of the gentleman’s club as a backdrop throughout; scenes which were private were blurred with those which were public. In a gruesome touch Monterone is hung on stage and left there in the corner as an omen for the fall of Rigoletto.

The star of the show, baritone Quinn Kelsey would not be the person I imagine Rigoletto to be. He is tall and imposing, definitely hero material, and not a man like Rigoletto who we are told has to rely solely on his wits. With a bit of opera magic and costuming (Kelsey had his hump and a stumbling walk) it was easy to put aside such difficulties. Besides which since when have opera singers looked the part? His tortured Rigoletto falls prey to the mind games he was once a master of, and does not seem to notice the contradiction between his earlier damning of Monterone whose daughter falls prey to the Duke and Gilda falling in love with Mantua.

For me this is the point of the opera – a very gothic morality of being attacked by the very evil he promoted, and not the inevitable irony of being the instrument his own daughter’s death, which Alden focuses on.

Barry Banks in Christopher Alden's production of Rigoletto - ENO - Photo credit Alistair Muir
Barry Banks - Photo credit Alistair Muir
Barry Banksas the Duke of Mantua seemed to be playing more the fool than Rigoletto. His crawling over the table was very comical, as was his groping of at least four of the women. But despite this his singing was strong and ‘La donna è mobile’ stopped the show.

Anna Christy’s light soprano voice with its trilling vibrato was a delightful Glida. She played the part more conniving than unworldly, aided by her companion/ housekeeper in meeting Mantua (but behind Gilda’s back they were also having an affair).
Bass Peter Rose made a nasty piratical Sparafucile - one incredibly low note after another. Maddalena, Sparafucile’s much abused sister was performed by Justina Gringyte, and Giovanna the housekeeper by Diana Montague. The male singing roles included Monterone played by David Stout, Marullo by George Humphreys, Ceprano by Barnaby Rea and Borsa by Anthony Gregory.

Rigoletto is on at the ENO until the 14th March.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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