Vassallo, Franco


RigolettoGiuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2012 | Marco Armiliato, Árpád Schilling, Joseph Calleja, Franco Vassallo, Patricia Pettibon, Dimitry Ivashchenko, Nadia Krasteva, Tim Kuypers, Dean Power, Christian Rieger | Live Internet Streaming, 30 December 2012

Despite appearances, with a production that made use of some eccentric touches in each of the scenes, the Bayerische Staatsoper production of Verdi’s Rigoletto didn’t really seem to have anything new or even meaningful to add to a popular and brilliant work from the composer that will surely have more memorable outings in the year of his bicentenary. Better sung ones too, undoubtedly, but that might have been a problem with the failure of director Árpád Schilling to give the fine singers here any meaningful characterisation and direction to work with.

There’s little doubt about where the focus of interest in the opera is from Verdi’s perspective. It’s not about the King’s or, in this case, the Duke’s amusements (the work derived from Victor Hugo’s ‘Le Roi s’amuse‘), as much as the dilemma of the little man, Rigoletto, his court jester, who is caught up in the intrigues and less capable of dealing with the fall-out that results from the Duke of Mantua’s wilder and more licentious activities. What’s intriguing about the work is how Rigoletto is not entirely a sympathetic figure (and the Duke is not entirely without some redeemable features either), and that he is in many ways the agent of his own downfall - even though he can’t see that as being anything more than the curse of one courtier, Count Monterone, whose daughter has been seduced by the Duke.

That much is retained in Schilling’s version for Munich, and it would be hard to present Rigoletto in any other way, such is the precision of Verdi’s structuring of the work and his purposeful musical arrangements, the opera driven by a series of duets that establish the characterisation and the relationships between each of the figures. Rigoletto is indeed shown - perhaps through no fault of his own having been born a hunchback and otherwise unable to attain love and acceptance through ordinary means - to be a lapdog to the Duke of Mantua, complicit in his schemes, believing himself secure in his favoured position. He’s not completely naive however. He knows the true nature of the Duke and looks to protect his own little idealised existence - his daughter - from the kind of corruption that he himself is party to. Rigoletto is “an amoral petty bourgeois man” according to Schilling, “who dreams of innocence”, and who in the end is destroyed by his own attempts to defend this untenable position.

That’s fine as far as it goes, and if it doesn’t present any new ideas on the nature of Rigoletto, it at least adheres to Verdi’s dramatic and musically astute depiction of this intriguing figure. There’s no necessity either for Rigoletto to be dressed as a court jester or bear his deformity in order to draw his character - Verdi has it so well written in his musical arrangements. If the costume designer chooses to dress him in a shirt, chinos and a neckscarf, changing to a white bow-tie, top-hat and tails for the final scene, that’s just as fine a way of distinguishing his social aspirations. And if the Duke slums around in slacks, a chunky cardigan and vest shirt, and Gilda wears a jumper and jeans or a bathrobe, well, it doesn’t look like much, but Rigoletto need not be as much about class and clothes as personality and love. And since Gilda loves Gualtier Malde whether he is a poor student or a nobleman, there’s no need here for lavish period costumes.

It still doesn’t look like much. What passes for distinctiveness in the production in the absence of any social or period context however is unfortunately rather odd. In Act 1, the court of the Duke is represented by a stepped platform, a viewing gallery from which the courtiers watch the proceedings. In the second scene, the assassin Sparafucile’s weapon isn’t a sword, but a wheelchair with oversize wheels - or more precisely, a flick-knife and a tin of black paint that he uses on his victims having lured them to sit in the strange wheeled apparatus. A huge statue of a rearing horse is wheeled out briefly as the climax to Act 2 for no apparent reason or significance, and Act 3 brings back the steps for the inn scene. It’s all very representational - if the meaning isn’t entirely clear - but it doesn’t unfortunately create the necessary impression.

In such a context, neither unfortunately does the singing. Joseph Calleja sings well enough, but his Duke lacks regal arrogance and boyish charm and there’s a curious lack of feeling in his delivery. There’s a little more urgency to Franco Vassallo’s Rigoletto and Patricia Pettibon’s rather more sympathetic Gilda, but the direction never allows them to express the roles with any sense of feeling for the drama. One other curious touch in the casting that might have significance is the duality or contrast made by casting Dimitry Ivashchenko as both Monterone and Sparafucile and having Nadia Krasteva play Maddalena and Gilda’s maidservant Giovanna - but again, what this adds exactly to the work remains elusive. Still, despite the best efforts of the production design and direction to undermine it, the Bavarian State Opera production of Rigoletto benefitted from reasonably good singing performances, and ultimately won through by virtue alone of the wonder of Verdi’s score and its performance by the Munich orchestra under Marco Armiliato.

Rigoletto was viewed via live Internet Streaming from the Bayerische Staatsoper.TV website. The next free live broadcast will be Janáček’s Jenufa starring Karita Mattila on 9th March 2013.

LucreziaGaetano Donizetti - Lucrezia Borgia

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2009 | Bertrand de Billy, Christof Loy, Edita Gruberova, Pavol Breslik, Franco Vassallo, Alice Coote, Bruno Ribeiro, Christian Rieger, Christopher Magiera, Erik Årman, Steven Humes, Emanuele D’Aguanno, Christian van Horn, Elisabeth Haag | EuroArts

I can easily understand why many might not like Christof Loy’s opera stage productions. If I didn’t know better myself, I’d swear that he’s having a laugh with this 2009 production of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia for the Bavarian State Opera. When I say I know better however, that’s taking a superior stance, but rather speaking from experience that no matter how minimally staged, no matter how ludicrous the proposition or inappropriate the costume design, and as far removed as they seem to be from the original stage directions, each of his recent productions that I have seen (Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Les Vêpres Siciliennes, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Theodora) have, without exception, been as powerful a performance of the work in question as any I’ve ever seen. That’s why, despite initial reservations that he surely can’t be serious with this bizarre staging of Lucrezia Borgia, it only takes a few moments of actually listening to the performances to see that, whatever he’s doing, the full power and beauty of the work is all there and coming across.

This Lucrezia Borgia, I have to say, doesn’t look like any bel canto opera production you’ve seen before, but it does look a lot like a typical Christof Loy production - bare minimally decorated stage, everyone wearing dinner jackets, a couple of chairs scattered around. That’s 15th century Venice of the Prologue. The only real distinguishing feature is the distinguished figure of Edita Gruberova as Lucrezia Borgia, wearing a period costume in bold red while everyone else is dressed in black and white and the stage is grey, and the words LUCREZIA BORGIA spelt out in big block letters along the back wall. That’s something at least, meaning that it will allow one letter to be dropped at a significant point in the First Act, even if that’s about as much as a concession as you’ll find here to the stage directions in the libretto. Oh, and Orsini and his men look like public schoolboys, with floppy hair and their trousers rolled-up to just below the knees. What on earth is that all about?

Despite confusion over just what exactly Christof Loy’s intentions could possibly be, and the nagging feeling that he really is displaying nothing but contempt for the work, your ears should tell a different story and you might even begrudgingly admit that somehow - without really being able to put your finger on the reason why - the production does actually work. Lucrezia Borgia is not an easy opera to make work on the stage. The plot line, derived from a work by Victor Hugo and awkwardly adapted for Donizetti by Francesco Maria Piave, is rather ridiculous, weighed down by exposition and unlikely coincidences. If we’re to accept the conflict within Lucrezia over her maternal feelings for Gennaro and her monstrous activities as part of the murderous Borgia family, you have to find some humanity in there, and that’s not easily found within the libretto. Although Donizetti’s scoring can seem a little bit bel canto by numbers, and even with Bertrand de Billy conducting it does tend to plod along in places, there are nonetheless some marvellous opportunities for a singer to bring out that underlying humanity, but really you need a singer like Joan Sutherland to be capable of expressing it. Or Edita Gruberova.

Commanding terrific presence from the moment she appears in her red period dress while all around her speak of youth and modernism, Gruberova - with respect - looks like a relic from the past. And this is perhaps where Christof Loy’s production - created specifically for the Bayerische Staatsoper following Loy and Gruberova’s previous collaboration on Roberto Devereux - comes into its own. Lucrezia Borgia is indeed a relic of the past, the latest in a long line of a dynasty of terror whose crimes have not been forgotten by Orsini and his men, who are at long last speaking out against the tyranny of the Borgias. The challenges of playing the role of Lucrezia Borgia then are not so much in the singing - which, to say the least, is challenge enough - but in making Lucrezia work as a real character. On paper it doesn’t work, the libretto filled with flaws and inconsistencies that are nearly impossible to reconcile within the personality of one person. Is Lucrezia Borgia a monster? Undoubtedly. The libretto and the testimony of Orsini and his colleagues and her revenge upon them make that quite evident even within the opera itself, never mind the historical record. Even her reaction to the insult to the family name that is perpetrated by Gennaro shows that the same heartless monster still resides within, regardless of the sensitivity she has shown earlier. Is she really capable of loving motherly sentiments and compassion or are they just an expression of self-interest in her own family name, of a mother for her son? Making you like the character or sympathise with her is not the issue however, making her come to life is the real challenge, and Edita Gruberova can do that. Not many others can.

Donizetti’s style and the rather static nature of the bel canto repertoire, which involves more standing around and singing than action or drama, is also a relic of the past and, perhaps recognising that, Christof Loy plays up to it. No amount of props and costumes and period detail is going to make Lucrezia Borgia any more convincing as a drama, but creating an environment that gives the necessary space to the actual real strengths of the work - the arias and the coloratura given expression by singers of sufficient stature and quality - and actually highlighting them against the rather drab background, seems to me to be working with the nature, qualities and weaknesses of the opera itself. Yes, some of the directorial choices can seem wilfully bizarre, but the basic simplicity of having the words LUCREZIA BORGIA in capital letters on the backdrop throughout reminds you that this is history and character writ large, played large by Donizetti, and performed the only way it can be performed. It takes singers of sufficient strength of personality and the necessary ability to rise to the heights required to make this grotesque and absurd relic of another age meaningful, comprehensible and even beautiful.

The decision then, following their previous collaboration on the stunning Munich production of Roberto Devereux, to build this new production of Lucrezia Borgia around Gruberova, proves to be a great success, and is perhaps the only way it would work. It might as well say EDITA GRUBEROVA on the backdrop. She is simply mesmerising to watch and to listen to, rising to the challenges that the nature of her character represents and meeting the demanding nature of the arias. In fact, she shows that they are one and the same, that the complex nature of the character can only be expressed though the phrasing and the delivery, with full command and awareness of how one’s own tone of voice can be used towards meeting that objective. Experience, if you like, but it’s more than that. For Lucrezia Borgia to succeed it needs more than just a good technique and experience, it needs a voice of real substance and personality, and Edita Gruberova certainly has that. It helps considerably though if you have a strong Gennaro and Pavol Breslik is one of the finest young tenors around. I don’t think there is sufficient attention paid to making his character “work” within the dramatic context of the opera and to a large extent the other roles - Alice Coote’s Orsini and Franco Vassallo’s Don Alfonso - are similarly sung well, but weakly characterised (there are limits admittedly to what a stage director or performer can do with this libretto), but - as is made clear here - the opera is all about LUCREZIA BORGIA, and this is one production that is worthy of being capitalised.

There is a slight downside to the production choices however in that it doesn’t always come across as effectively as it might on the screen, or indeed in the audio mixing. The use of metal plates for a raised platform causes a fair amount of clatter and rattling, while the boxed empty stage leads to an echoing tone that affects the acoustics of the singing and, it seems, the orchestration. The quality of the singing is evident - and Edita Gruberova doesn’t have too much trouble being heard - but the tone is metallic and far from the warm sound you would expect for a bel canto opera. Within the limitations of the mostly bare stage, Brian Large directs as well as he can for the small screen, taking in the impact of the whole stage with edits that are attuned to the rhythms of the music, but it still never really manages to bring the staging to life. The image quality is strong in the High Definition presentation, the audio tracks - PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0 - are however rather limited in dynamic range by the acoustics. The Blu-ray also includes a fascinating hour-long documentary ‘The Art of Bel Canto - Edita Gruberova’, charting the career of the Czech-Slovak soprano and her approach to opera. The BD is region-free and subtitles for the main feature are English, German, French, Italian and Spanish.