‘That’s why opera is important…because it’s realer
than any play! A dramatic poet would have to put all those thoughts
down one after another to represent this second of time. The composer
can put them all down at once – and still make us hear each one of them.
Astonishing device: a Vocal Quartet!’ – Mozart, in Shaffer’s ‘Amadeus’.
Absolutely – but how often is one actually reminded of the truth of
this? How often can one be convinced, virtually from the first phrase,
that opera is music theatre and not just singing against a backdrop?
How often does one see and hear a vocal quartet – in any language –
where each character’s emotions are not just indicated but made real?
Very rarely, in my experience, and rather than begin this review with
the obvious remarks about rain pouring down from the ceiling, it seems
fitting, at a time when the ENO is undergoing yet another crisis, to
remind our readers that if they want to know what opera is really about,
they need to get down to the Coliseum.
‘Oh yawn, not this stuff again’ - no, this was not
my reaction when the curtain went up last night on my fifth visit to
this production, but it was exactly what I muttered in first witnessing
the Royal Opera’s new ‘Rigoletto’ last year. A production may be new,
but it can still trot out the same old red plush costumes, stock operatic
gestures, dreary, meaningless sets and uncommitted on-stage participation.
A production may be old, but it can still present a stunning visual
experience, highly naturalistic acting, superbly evocative settings
and fully thought-through characterizations giving evidence at every
turn of a real understanding of the crucial confrontations which mark
out the moments of crisis in the lives of the personages – and so it
is with this classic piece of Jonathan Miller’s art, first seen in 1982
and now revived by John la Bouchardière with such loving commitment
that first-timers could have no possible reason to feel deprived at
not having seen the original.
From the opening bars, it was clear that Michael Lloyd’s
was to be a dark, driven version of the score; indeed, I cannot recall
having heard the overture played with such lugubrious power, or the
closing bars of Act 2 given with such a sense of barely contained frenzy.
This orchestra is now playing better than ever, and you just can’t help
feelings of sadness that it may be under threat. As for the singing,
one could hardly ask for more, and as always at ENO, there was no stand-and-deliver.
The ‘Duke’ was to have been sung by Rhys Meirion, who had made such
a strong impression in last season’s ‘L’Elisir d’Amore,’ but a sinus
infection had laid him low and he was replaced by the veteran Bonaventura
Bottone, to whom the rôle is as natural as walking. For such a
short notice performance, this was a most impressive Duke; he caught
exactly that ‘no-good boyo’ air which fitted the director’s concept,
and his singing, though more striking in forte than in quiet passages,
was characterful and as Italianate as one could hope for. There were
one or two rocky moments in ‘Questa o quella’, but ‘La Donna è
mobile’ found him in confident, ringing voice.
Linda Richardson’s Gilda is well known in this house,
and her singing was clean, fluent and expressive, with exceptional diction
– ‘Caro nome’ was exactly phrased and excitingly articulated and in
her unaffected acting she managed to suggest the combination of silly
impressionable girl and idealistic heroine which a great Gilda must
achieve. In the scenes with her father and the Duke, her air of touching
vulnerability was very moving. Anna Burford’s Maddalena provided an
ideal contrast, with her luscious tone and provocative manner.
This production has always been graced with wonderful
basses and Clive Bayley’s Sparafucile was no exception: his sinister
presence, highly committed acting and the wonderful sonorousness of
his lower register made up a treasurable assumption of the rôle
– the image of his slowly retreating figure was one of the classic moments
of the evening. Leslie John Flanagan’s Marullo and Roderick Earle’s
Monterone made almost equally strong impressions.
This was Alan Opie’s debut in the title role, and whilst
he did not quite succeed in erasing memories of John Rawnsley, he offered
an interpretation remarkable for its combination of tenderness and ferocity:
‘Pari siamo’ was mellifluously phrased, and ‘Cortigiani, vil razza dannata’
was so savage that it made one jump. Opie’s is a human, believable figure
but he still manages to suggest those essential towering, Lear-like
qualities of obsessive love and that desire for revenge which, as Bacon
wrote, triumphs over death. Even in the character’s near-demented moments,
such as his preparation for casting the body into the river, Opie’s
tone remained beautiful and intensely sympathetic.
Everything in this production makes sense: setting
the opening at a San Gennaro party in Little Italy, and constantly evoking
the brooding towers of New York City as a backdrop to the finely suggested
domestic detail, the original designers, Patrick Robertson and Rosemary
Vercoe, created a complete work of art in unison with the director.
There can be very few scenes on the present operatic stage to rival
the one set at Sparafucile’s bar with its sleazy intimacy, and outside,
the threatening dark. Rigoletto and Gilda out there in the storm, Maddalena,
her brother and the Duke inside in the deceptive safety, not only make
a superb stage picture but provide the most perfect visual equivalent,
to return to my opening paragraph, for a performance of the great quartet
which I have seldom heard equalled for the sheer power of the singing,
the incisive quality of the diction which allowed every word to come
across and the absolute emotional involvement which one was made to
feel with each of the characters.
The house was packed, and if there is anyone out there
who has never seen this production it would be a crime to miss it –
even if you have seen it before it has not lost its ability to surprise
and delight, especially with such a cast: I would happily go another
Alan Opie as Rigoletto / Linda Richardson
Photo: Bill Rafferty