Fri 17 Jun 2011
Giuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto
Scottish Opera | Tobias Ringborg, Matthew Richardson, Eddie Wade, Nadine Livingston, Edgaras Montvidas, Jonathan May, Louise Collett | Grand Opera House, Belfast - June 16, 2011
It’s hard to imagine how Verdi’s choice of Victor Hugo’s drama ‘Le Roi s’amuse’ could have caused such a stir in 1850 when it was used as the basis for his opera Rigoletto, but censorship problems would dog the composer all through his early career, partly due to the revolutionary political content of his work, but also partly due to Verdi’s headstrong challenging of authority for most of his life. One can understand to some extent that, even with the arbitrary nature of censorship that would depend on where the opera was being first performed (Verdi famously would subsequently withdraw Un ballo in maschera from Naples and take it to Rome after already being forced to make sweeping changes to its original incarnation as Gustavo III) , that the authorities wouldn’t look too kindly upon the subject of a libertine king being involved in scandalous affairs with the wives of his courtiers and being subject to a death plot, but there are other shocking events introduced to the opera stage in Rigoletto by Verdi that we take almost for granted nowadays. A good production of this opera however should ensure that it still has an impact today.
In the end, Verdi was forced to relocate Rigoletto away from the behaviour of royalty in post-revolutionary France to Mantua in Italy, but surprisingly, he was still able to make an obvious allusion to the notoriety of Vincenzo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua. While Verdi might not have got away with depicting a libertine king consorting with prostitutes, a Duke indulging in that kind of behaviour on a stage was scarcely less shocking, but no more so that the fact that Verdi, who would be a great revolutionary in giving common people a voice on the opera stage, would depict anyone at all taking part in the rather sordid lowlife dealings that occur over the course of the opera’s intensely dramatic three acts. This was just not the sort of behaviour that one expected to see in an opera.
In my recent review of Macbeth, I mentioned how Verdi loved to mix political fire with the oil of relationship melodrama in his early works – Un ballo in maschera is another stormy later example of this style – but occasionally, the forumula changes in interesting ways, with Stiffelio for example combining a pot-boiling infidelity melodrama with religious rather than a political conviction and sense of duty. Rigoletto is also fascinating for its variation on a theme, where the central relationship under threat is not a romantic one (although it does have a romantic aspect), but the relationship between a father and his daughter. What is just as intriguing about the father-daughter relationship in Rigoletto is that it is not idealised, and the flawed character of Rigoletto can be seen as being fatally over-protective of his daughter, Gilda. When there is a libertine like the Duke of Mantua running around, whose reputation Rigoletto knows well as his court jester and co-conspirator, one can understand his concerns for the daughter that the brute of a man with many enemies has – and they prove to be well-founded – but the downside is that his over-protectiveness leads Gilda to react and assert her freedom of choice in a rather dramatic and tragic way.
All of this adds spice to the characterisation, for while Rigoletto is certainly a blood-and-thunder Verdi melodrama (quite literally with the third-act bloodletting taking place during a thunderstorm), the composer does overturn some of the usual conventions. If Rigoletto is the standard clown, whose joking hides a sensitive disposition and whose ugliness of his deformity disguises the beauty of his love for his daughter, it’s his jealousy, his pride and his superstition (Verdi reminding us regularly of the curse that has been placed on him by Count Monterone for his complicity in the Duke’s crimes), that end up distorting the genuine love he has for his daughter. On the other hand, the villain of the piece, the Duke, manages through the privilege of his position and his handsomeness, as well as a carefree attitude, to get away with his infidelity and his use of people for his own pleasures. Rather than predictably show that all men are equal, Rigoletto emphasises rather the social inequalities that persist and how their weaknesses can be exploited by the less scrupulous – seen here in the form of the assassin, Sparafucile.
Whether these considerations really make Rigoletto anything more than a melodramatic potboiler is however difficult to justify, and indeed there’s little in Verdi’s score to suggest any greater subtleties. As a pure example of the Verdi style however, it’s a remarkably effective and superbly structured musical drama. Although it is principally concerned with introducing the characters, showing their temperaments and setting up the drama that is to later unfold, Act 1 does so most efficiently and has some fine musical moments and arias that are to reverberate through the remainder of the opera. Scottish Opera’s staging likewise tried to make this efficient as possible, viewing it not in period costume or set in Mantua (with the Marco Bellochio’s 2010 live telecast from Mantua still fresh in the mind, it could hardly compete with the real-life locations), but more like an old-fashioned cabaret or variety show, with Rigoletto in tights and pottering across the stage like Max Wall. With traditional backdrop stage-curtains and doors, chorus-line dancers and glitterballs, it set the tone well in this respect, but, like Verdi’s composition, the real test of the opera is in the second and third acts.
The pivotal second act, made up of a series of stunning arias and duets, determines not only whether the singers are up to the challenge, but also whether the production is able to make it work in dramatic terms. It would be hard to get it so wrong that the drama doesn’t work – Verdi’s score is lean and strong enough on its own terms and the action well choreographed to pull it through – but thankfully, the quality of the singing and acting in Scottish Opera’s production was also up to the task. The three principal roles are all challenging, but vital, and they all need to work in common accord. Rigoletto’s lyrical baritone should ensure that it is anything but a buffone role, and Eddie Wade managed to convey the contradiction and confusion in the character’s make-up through his acting and through his fine singing performance of the role. Edgaras Montvidas came across as a little cocky and self-satisfied in his delivery as the Duke, but that’s how he ought to be. There’s a little room for early ambiguity which might not quite have been caught in his relationship with Gilda, since he has to be persuasive enough for her to trust him and fall in love with him, but elsewhere, and particularly in the famous third act aria La donna è mobile, the tone and the quality of the singing were excellent. It’s Gilda however that the opera ultimately rests upon, and although a little inexperienced, that innocent quality stood Nadine Livingston in good stead, making her predicament and fate genuinely touching and almost credible (there are limits to how convincing the denouement can be dramatically).
While it was harder to relate the relevance of the staging – an open room with a leather sofa and a glitterball littered with parts of showroom dummies in Act 2, a tilted-box representation of the inn in Act 3 – to any overall theme or concept, the choreography was fine and didn’t work against the drama. Combined with the strong singing and Verdi’s powerful score, this production hit all the right notes in all the right places, the darkness of the operas themes and its daring treatment still powerful enough for a modern day audience to in some way understand why it caused such a sensation over 150 years ago.