Desperate for something to blog about other than the World Cup, I decided to end the working week with an evening of Opera at the  Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay. The new summer season of Welsh National Opera consists of only two operas; the one that has received the most press attention – and excellent reviews – has been their new production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg starring Bryn Terfel. Although not long ago I promised to make an effort to get to grips with Wagner I’m afraid I couldn’t face the six-and-a-half hours running time and decided to give it a miss. Maybe next time. However, I couldn’t do without any fix of Grand Opera so decided to go to WNO’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto.

Rigoletto is best known for a clutch of famous set-pieces, especially the tenor arias Questa o quella and La donna e mobile, Caro Nome, a spectacular coloratura piece for a soprano, and a truly beautiful quartet Bella figlia. If you hear these joyfully exuberant pieces on their own, you will probably get quite the wrong idea about what the Opera  is actually like. It’s actually one of the darkest tragedies to be found on the opera stage.

The hunchback Rigoletto is employed as a sort of court jester for the Duke of Mantua, a cynical Lothario possibly made by the same firm who constructed Don Giovanni. Rigoletto entertains the Duke not so much by telling jokes but by making fun of his enemies, and sometimes the other members of the court. The decadent Duke, who apparently has difficulty keeping his trousers on, is eventually confronted by Count Monterone whose daughter the Duke has dishonoured. Rigoletto swings into action and abuses the Count who lays a curse on the hunchback. Somewhat surprisingly, the curse has a powerful effect on Rigoletto who suddenly becomes remorseful and anxious for his future. He’s been pretty good at making enemies, and feels that payback time must be coming. Thus the tragedy is set in motion, and we know something very bad is going to happen.

Incidentally, there’s more than a hint of Don Giovanni, both musically and dramatically, in Count Monterone’s arrival at the Duke’s palace in Act I Scene I. I don’t know enough about Verdi to be sure, but I’m pretty convinced that it’s a deliberate homage to Mozart’s own tragic masterpiece.

On his way home, Rigoletto runs into a sinister character called Sparafucile who turns out to be a professional assassin. He offers his services should they ever be needed. When Rigoletto gets home we find out that he has a beautiful daughter, Gilda, whom he adores.In this scene we see the human side of Rigoletto. He’s no longer simply grotesque and nasty. He’s  a troubled and vulnerable man, coping with his deformity in the only way he knows how and doing his best to provide for and protect his daughter. He’s despised and he knows it.   Rigoletto is not a hero, but he’s not really a villian either. That ambiguity plays large part in giving this opera such emotional impact.

It then turns out the  Duke is  trying to seduce Gilda. To complicate matters further, the Duke’s courtiers kidnap Gilda as a prank thinking that she is Rigoletto’s mistress. When he finds out what has happened he eventually rescues Gilda, but swears revenge. Perhaps Sparafucile will come in useful after all…

Unfortunately, Gilda is bewilderingly naive and has actually rather taken to the Duke. She sings Caro Nome about him, but it’s actually a false name he’s given her. This aria works so well in the setting of the Opera because the audience knows that the Duke is a scumbag. Only Gilda doesn’t. It turns out, though, that Sparafucile has other irons in his fire; he also pimps for his sleazy sister Maddalena. At Rigoletto’s request he lures the Duke to his pad to have his way with Maddalena. Rigoletto brings Gilda along to see the Duke’s infidelity at first hand. She’s shocked, and he sends her away while Sparafucile gets ready to top the Duke. A thunderstorm gathers.

But Gilda’s so smitten with the Duke that she can’t bear to see him killed. Neither can Maddalena. He’s obviously quite a stud, this Duke. Maddalena tries to persuade Sparafucile to kill Rigoletto, when he returns with the payment, instead of the Duke. That way he’ll still get his money. In a moment of deliciously black comedy, Sparafucile refuses with words to the effect of “Do you think I’m some kind of crook?”. But Gilda returns to Sparafucile’s house in the storm, dressed in man’s clothes and pretending to be a beggar. Sparafucile doesn’t know who it is, and conceives a cunning plan. He  kills her, puts her body into a sack and passes it off as the remains of the Duke. Rigoletto returns, and can’t resist looking inside the sack. Gilda isn’t quite dead, but she dies in his arms. The curse has been fulfilled.

This revival of James MacDonald’s production places the action not in 19th Century Mantua but in Washington DC of the early sixties. There’s more than a hint of JFK in the Duke, his palace is the White House, the street scenes evoke West Side Story, and so on. Gilda in bobby socks works pretty well too. The problem is that it’s not obvious how Rigoletto fits into this setting, nor why people are wandering around Washington DC talking about coming from Burgundy and going to Verona.

Unfortunately, Gwyn Hughes-Jones was indisposed so Shaun Dixon had to stand in at short notice as the Duke. In the circumstances he gave a creditable performance but his voice lacked the power needed to shine in the big tenor arias and he didn’t have much in the way of stage presence, either. It’s quite difficult to understand Gilda’s credulity unless the Duke possesses considerable charisma, so he was a bit of a weak point.

On the other hand, baritone Simon Keenlyside was absolutely smashing as Rigoletto, and so was David Soar as a magnificently creepy Sparafucile.  Even better than these was American soprano Sarah Coburn as Gilda. Caro nome is heard so often – in commercials and elsewhere – that it’s very hard for singers to do something special with it. Sarah Coburn has wonderful control but her rendition was not only a flawless exhibition of vocal gymnastics;  she also invested it with a heartbreaking vulnerability completely in keeping with Gilda’s character. Her Caro nome was worth the ticket price on its own, I’d say. It was too much for the lady in the seat in front of me, though, who burst into tears half way through.

4 Responses to “Rigoletto”

  1. Steve Warren Says:

    You have no stamina. Your older colleague Mike Edmunds tells me he has tickets to see this production of Die Meistersinger no less than three times.

  2. telescoper Says:

    Perhaps it’s not such much a question of stamina as one of taste…and Mike Edmunds is retired so has a bit more time to indulge his!

  3. […] “. . . baritone Simon Keenlyside was absolutely smashing as Rigoletto . . ..”–In the Dark […]

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