Friday 21 February 2014

RIgoletto - second view

ENO Rigoletto 2014 Quinn Kelsey (c) Alastair Muir
Quinn Kelsey
ENO Rigoletto (c) Alastair Muir
For the second time this season English National Opera have replaced a long-running, favourite production. Earlier this season it was The Magic Flute and now Christopher Alden's production of Verdi's Rigoletto (a co-production with Canadian Opera) has come to rest at the London Coliseum to replace the influential, long-running Jonathan Miller production. We caught the second night of the production's run on February 15th to give a second view to the production (see Hilary's review of the first night).

Where Miller set the opera in New York's Little Italy in a very precise historical period, Alden's new production has a more generic setting within which Alden explores the themes of the opera; this is rather a dark production. Following on from a very well cast La Traviata, ENO have again scored with the very fine cast fielded for Rigoletto with Quinn Kelsey in the title role, Barry Banks as the Duke of Manuta and Anna Christy as Gilda, with Graeme Jenkins conducting.

Alden and his designer Michael Levine set the opera in a huge wood-paneled room much akin to a London club. Costumes are mid 19th century, tail-coats for the men and crinolines for the women, and the opening scene takes place in the context of the club. The remaining scenes are in the same set, Alden and Levine are not interested in historical realism here, simply the interaction of the characters. The large space (and it is large, extending the full width and depth of the Coliseum stage) meant that Alden could have characters sitting on the sides watching. My only complaint was the need to use a drop curtain for scene changes, as much furniture is moved between scenes, you can't help feeling that something more slick could be organised.

We start in front of the drop curtain with Rigoletto (Quinn Kelsey) sitting in his chair; this chair is there for most of the opera and there is much to suggest that the action is taking place as Rigoletto's dream or memory of events. As with much in the production, this is something which is suggested rather than specified in detail. One of the virtues of Alden's production was its flexibility, with multiple levels of suggestion about the action.

The first act was pretty straightforward in terms of the action, though even here there was the feeling that this was a production about the opera (rather than being a production of the opera). I am not sure what someone unfamiliar with the plot would make of the action, but with Rigoletto this is probably a risk you can take, and there are some stunning stage pictures, such as the stage being covered in rose petals during the scene between the Duke (Barry Banks) and Anna Christy (Gilda).

Act two follows this, though some of the details are curious with the Duke's opening scene accompanied by the entire male chorus getting washed and changed. It was here that you began to realise that the action was conceptual, rather than realistic, despite the apparent realism of the settings. There were some nice touches such as the Duke's rape/seduction of Gilda taking place on a sofa in the middle of the stage, but hidden from view by the huddle of male courtiers eager to see what is happening.

The opening scene of the final act was frankly rather curious. Still taking place in the library, with Peter Rose's Sparafucile sitting atop a table and with Barry Bank's singing La donna e mobile whilst putting on armour and parading around with a sword! You felt at this point that Alden was being a little too eager to do something different, to erase memories of Jonathan Miller's Hopper-inspired set and that jukebox. This scene took place with the chorus sitting round watching, and the whole developed into something rather disturbingly threatening. Sparafucile's final scene with the Duke took place in front of the drop curtain, and when this raised the library was transformed. It was completely bare, all the furniture gone, just Gilda lying on a sheet surrounded by rose-petals. And when she died she walked away through the open door at the rear. Rather a cliched image perhaps, but a very affecting one.

ENO Rigoletto 2014 Anna Christy (c) Alastair Muir
Anna Christy
ENO Rigoletto 2014 (c) Alastair Muir
The production was intriguing and thought provoking, though I had a few cavills. For a start, it wasn't really clear who all these people are. Rigoletto is about power structures, and the beauty of Jonathan Miller's production was that it gave the Duke a very clear role. Here, it was far less obvious who he was, particularly when it comes to the punishment of Monterone (David Stout) who is strung up at the back of the library by the courtiers. This uncertainty was not helped by the costumes, as all the men wore the same black tail coat and frankly it made it tricky to tell who was whom on the stage. With his floppy hair, beard and habit of pouncing on anyone in a skirt, Barry Bank's Duke seemed very reminiscent of Napoleon III, though the resemblance was not pushed and I note that the photographs of the original Canadian Opera production have a male lead who looks nothing like Napoleon III. In fact the link is one that could be made profitably. (In fact Nuria Espert's 1988 production of Rigoletto for Covent Garden attempted to do just that, though the production was not much liked).

Alden's production worked partly because of the intensely strong performances that Alden got from his singers and I do wonder about its revivability.The lynch pin of the performance was the Rigoletto of Hawaiann baritone Quinn Kelsey, a towering performance as he staggered through the action seemingly permanently disturbed by the curse from Monterone. One of the virtues of Kelsey's account of the role was that from the first, his Rigoletto wasn't particularly nice and often downright nasty. Musically this was a very fine, rough-hewn account of the role. The high-lying baritone part clearly had no fears for Kelsey and his musical performance was at one with his dramatic, it was rough, yet expressive. I'm not sure I'd want to listen to this performance on disc, I'd want a little more surface polish. But oh boy did it work in the theatre. His Cortigiani was thrilling, and his whole performance was of a piece. His voice fully inhabits Verdi's vocal lines in a way which not many baritones do today. We definitely need to see more of this artist.

When it comes to the casting of the Duke and Gilda, it is possible to look either forward or backward. Quite often nowadays we get singers who sing heavier roles, tying the Duke and Gilda to later characters in a more dramatic fach. But it also possible to approach the casting from the other side, casting the roles with singers who are more used to singing Donizetti and Bellini. This approach can be seen at its clearest in Joan Sutherland's recording of the opera. By casting Barry Banks, performing the Duke for the first time, ENO was clearly going this route, and they certainly complemented Banks with the light-voiced lyric coloratura Gilda of Anna Christy. This casting might have been making a virtue out of necessity, but it certainly worked and I would not have wanted to have been deprived of Banks's suave Duke.

If Kelsey was all rough-hewn, then Banks was the opposite giving us a glorious stream of fine-grained singing. It was clear that at moments, the role took him towards his limit, but he never went beyond and he was finely accompanied by Graeme Jenkins and the orchestra. For once, the ENO Orchestra did not play a score full pelt and gave Banks and Christy plenty of room to manoeuvre. There was an elegance to Banks performance and a suaveness which recalled the late Alfredo Kraus and Kraus is certainly no bad role-model for an artist like Banks. He was finely paired by Christy who is aptly girlish in both voice and physique. Of course, Gilda neither has to look or sound girlish, after all many mature sopranos have given us fine performance, but in the context of my remarks above Christy's performance worked. She has a lovely lyric coloratura voice (having sung Lucia di Lammermoor here) with a fine trill, so that the more decorative parts of the role went well. She is also not frightened of the more darker elements and seemed to relish the rather dark tones of Alden's production. My only complaint is that her vocal performance was a little monochrome. Singers with larger, more spinto voices often bring a greater range of colour to the role of Gilda, and I wished that Christy could do the same.

Peter Rose was a gloriously creepy Sparafucile, with a nice line in resonant low notes; certainly strong casting and a credit to the production. Justina Gringyte made a fine Maddalena with a characterful contribution to what was a musically very strong quartet in the final act.

The smaller roles were all very well taken, though at times it was tricky to work out who was whom amongst the uniformly dressed courtiers. David Stout was unrecognisable as Monterone; George Humphreys, Anthony Gregory and Barnaby Rea were Marullo, Borsa and Ceprano with Susan Rann as Countess Ceprano. Joanne Appleby was the Page.

Diana Montague was Giovanna, though her role was much expanded as she also appeared in many of the court scenes and the suggestion that the Duke seduced her too was made very explicit.

The male chorus, boosted by 11 extra singers, were on strong form and made a firm and dramatic impression. As I mentioned above, Graeme Jenkins and the orchestra contributed a very finely sympathetic accompaniment, but this is not to imply that it was under-powered. Quite the contrary, as they showed how to bring character and vitality to a score even without playing full pelt.

I am not sure that Christopher Alden's production will ever quite achieve the iconic status of the Jonathan Miller one, but it is certainly an intriguing and powerfully dramatic voyage round a familiar score with some strongly musical performances from the cast.

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