S&H Opera review

Verdi: Rigoletto, ROH Covent Garden, September 2001 (M.E.)

For most of the opening scene of this production, I kept asking myself; why is it, that not one of the critics who have so far reviewed it has expressed any outrage or even dismay at what we see in this scene, when not long ago, vituperation was poured upon the ENO's Don Giovanni for antics which were not at all dissimilar - in fact, the present production is far more lewd. Is it just that here, all the fellatio and cunnilingus is being enacted in vaguely 16th century dress? Or is it perhaps, that what is acceptable for Verdi is unthinkable for Mozart? Or dare one say, that what is acceptable at Covent Garden is frowned on at the Coliseum? I can only guess; what I can state with conviction is that the opening scene of this production of Rigoletto was no more original or engaging than that of the Giovanni.

We are here in rumpy-pumpy, red-plush-gown territory, with tits everywhere, flashes of full frontal and plenty of lascivious gaping, (no, I don't mean groping - well, all right, then, that too) all enacted in front of - what? A set of aluminium steps, a tacky-looking sloping wall with a few bits of perspex stuck on it to resemble window/door shapes - and one well-worn chair. Oh, yeah, right - this is opera's young Turk telling us - what? Decay is universal? There's a shocking contrast between present-day urban tackiness and post-Renaissance / mid - nineteenth century Mantuan decadence? Whatever - all I can say is, this set bore a disturbingly close resemblance to one I concocted with a budget of 375 for an amateur production in 1977. I make no apologies for such comparisons, still less for the observation that it is simply not good enough to say, as Rodney Milnes did in The Times, that the ROH could not afford anything more than a single set. With public subsidy running at 21 million a year, and restricted view bench seats at 46, I'm afraid that argument is as thin as gossamer - oh, and to carry on the metaphor, the emperor has no clothes.

This production is dull, dull, dull, no matter how many pert nipples are flashed in one's face, and to even compare it to the landmark ENO "mafioso" one is to insult Jonathan Miller's exceptional understanding of opera, not merely in terms of setting but in the most crucial area of all - the interrelationships between the characters as they are being played by the singing actors on stage. McVicar has very little sense of the intimacy of human contact, and even less of the grandeur of moments of high drama that form part of even the most humdrum life.

I cannot think of a better phrase than Edward Seckerson's (writing in The Independent) to describe the demeanour of the principals - "looking and behaving like they're at La Scala 50 years ago." Would that they sang like the principals of that era, too, but in visual terms, that phrase says it all; they did everything but thigh-slapping, and the amount of silent - movie acting on stage was quite startling. Marcelo Alvarez as the Duke is costumed almost as a caricature primo uomo, and he certainly lives up to his outfits; belted out, long-held climactic notes, hammy gestures (what, exactly, was this director for?) and plenty of petulant grimacing. Only at "E il Sol dell'anima" and parts of "La Donna" did I hear any of the promised glory in his voice; it's a mellow sound, not too secure in the lower register or very ringing on top, but the middle has a certain sheen. I would not, on this showing, make any special effort to hear him again, and to compare him to Alfredo Kraus, as some have done, is frankly absurd. Christine Schaefer is one of my favourite sopranos in the German repertoire, and it was a pleasant surprise to see her taking on Gilda. "She's got a gorgeous voice," opined someone in the row behind me; well, no, actually she hasn't - her voice is astringent in quality, thin and tending towards sharpness at times, and most people would not automatically see her as a natural Verdi soprano. Nevertheless, she was by far the best singer in the cast; she gave a beautifully phrased account of "Caro Nome," and had no trouble with the taxing high notes of her part. Her assumption of the role was conventional, as was everything else in this production, but she was touching during the quartet with her convincing despair at her lover's perfidy.

Paolo Gavanelli is, according to the director, "the Rigoletto of choice throughout Europe." Well, Europe obviously places the notion of true Verdian baritone singing at a fairly low level these days; Gavanelli's voice is on the dry side, with no real legato line to speak of, but he has an instinctive understanding of the role which compensated for the lack of richness in his voice, and when singing at forte - which he did quite a lot - he's impressive in that he manages to sustain both the meaning of the words and the musical line. His interpretation of the part was deeply conventional, and could not begin to compare, either vocally or histrionically, with that of John Rawnsley. He was not helped by being costumed to imitate the RSC's vision of Richard III as enshrined by Anthony Sher.

The smaller parts were very strongly cast: in particular, Graeme Broadbent's menacing Ceprano dominated the stage whenever he appeared, Elizabeth Sikora's Giovanna was a superb cameo, and Graciela Araya made a fine Maddalena with her opulent mezzo and alluring presence.

In terms of what was happening in the pit, the first scene did not bode well, since the noisy rabble on stage completely drowned out the orchestra - now there's a rare feat. Once that was past, Edward Downes conducted a scrupulous account of the score, and maintained a sensitive approach to his singers throughout - he gave them plenty of freedom to show off, but also guided them gently through the quiet and exposed passages. The orchestra played well for him, but not outstandingly so; I'm still waiting to hear that promised world-class sound. Maybe at Jenufa?

Despite the dullness of the production and lack of much excitement in the singing, there were still great moments here, of course - no lover of opera can control the goosebumps that always come at certain times in Rigoletto, such as the start of "E il Sol dell' Anima," "Possente amor," the beginning of the final act quartet, "Lassu - in cielo" and of course Rigoletto's great cry of "A l'onda..." but I would like something more than indifferent acting, basic sets and mostly routine singing, from the opening production of what is supposed to be one of the world's great opera houses.

Melanie Eskenazi


See Martin Hoyle's interview with David McVicar

You also might like to read Frank Cadenhead's review of the Paris Rigoletto

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