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Seen and Heard International Opera Review

Verdi, Rigoletto at Dalhalla:  Sweden, Chorus and Orchestra of the Estonian National Opera, Tallinn,  Conducted by Ginataras Rinkevicius 11.8.2007. Premiere. (GF)


Stage Director: Neeme Kuningas
Set and Costume Designer: Kustav-Agu Püüman
Light Designer: Neeme Joe



The Duke of Mantua – Dmytro Popov (tenor)
Rigoletto – Hannu Niemelä (baritone)
Gilda, his daughter – Irina Dubrovskaya (soprano)
Giovanna, her confidante – Juuli Lill (mezzo-soprano)
Sparafucile, murderer – Leonod Savitsky (bass)
Maddalena, his sister – Helen Lokuta )mezzo-soprano)
The Count of Monterone – Mati Palm (bass)
Marullo – Aare Saal (baritone)
Matteo Borsa – Urmas Pöldma (tenor)
The Count of Ceprano – Priit Volmer (bass)
The Countess, Donna Ceprano – Valentina Taluma (mezzo-soprano)
Court Usher – Villu Valdmaa (baritone)
Page – Maris Liloson (mezzo-soprano) 

The premiere of Carmen on Friday 10 August was in the main a protracted affair, only intermittently engaging and then through isolated high-spots and the singing of the two main protagonists. “Bizet with water” – and it wasn’t in the first place the drizzle during the first two acts that was the culprit; it was the purposeless direction where the actors walked through life without an aim and made the colourful spectacle seem curiously diluted.

The second premiere in two days, Verdi’s indestructible Rigoletto, was something quite different: taut, intense, engaging. One reason is of course Verdi’s and Piave’s dramaturgy, which is so much more concentrated, so much more focused on the central drama, where there is never a second of slackening tension. Here at Dalhalla director Neeme Kuningas made the tragic story unfold mercilessly, cast in one unbroken piece. A contributing factor to this feeling of unity was the set design, unchanged during the performance. The wide stage was basically divided into three different settings: centre stage the luxurious but decaying palace of the Duke, to the right Rigoletto’s humble dwellings and to the left the slum area where the murderer Sparafucile and his sister ran their “business”. The ingenious design allowed the characters to move freely between the settings; when Rigoletto at the end of the first scene unmasks and changes from jester to anxious and caring father, he simply took off his motley, disappeared to the right and within a moment came back through a gate and – voilà – he was in his home and was greeted by his daughter Gilda. The sets as well as the costumes were period but the seamless transportations between the settings made this a drama of our, or indeed, any time. As in Carmen Neeme Joe’s light design was a real asset and contributed greatly to the atmosphere. One of the attractions for any director and/or light designer working at Dalhalla is the use of the surrounding rough rock walls, which can be coloured for different effects and the thunderstorm in the last act was spectacular indeed. A really touching moment was the very end of the opera when Rigoletto realises that the body in the sack he gets from Sparafucile is not the Duke but his own daughter Gilda, not yet dead. But when she sang her last phrases: Lassù in cielo, vicina alla madre, In eterno per voi pregherò. (in Lionel Salter’s English translation: “Up in heaven, near my mother, in eternity I will pray for you”) she was in fact already ‘up in heaven’, singing from high above and behind the audience. Long before this, at the end of scene 3, when Rigoletto and Gilda are alone after the Duke’s abduction of her, Rigoletto calls her Angelo mio (My angel) something he repeats at the very end of the opera with even greater emphasis: Angiol caro! (Dearest angel), and we got a premonition of this when she after her confession in the third scene, innocently dressed in white with a red cape over her shoulders, stretched out her arms and depicted the traditional image of an angel. The symbol was obvious enough then but became even clearer during the finale. As in Carmen, and indeed almost any opera of importance, it is the personal conflicts, the intimate scenes that are the core, but in Rigoletto there is also the hostilities between the courtiers and Rigoletto, graphically depicted in the scene where Rigoletto in his aria Cortigiani threatens, condemns and pleads to the icy and cynical nobles. Here the director had created the archetypal antagonism between a collective and an individual but made it even more frightening and humiliating by chiselling out individual portraits within the group of oppressors.

There, as during the rest of the performance, Hannu Niemelä was magnificent in his shaping of Rigoletto’s character – or rather characters, since he changed posture and bearing as well as vocal expression when he changed roles. In the Cortigiani scene this was very obvious. When making his entrance out of sight from the courtiers he was straight-backed and dignified but as soon as he was seen by his oppressors he crouched, his face distorted and he was the jester. During the course of this scene, however, he gradually became his real self and all the mockery disappeared and was replaced by true despair, true anger, true hate and true appeal for compassion. I wasn’t very impressed by Niemelä’s Escamillo the evening before but also made the remark that he might be quite different as Rigoletto, bearing in mind his impressive Iago some years ago in Helsinki. My hope was not frustrated. Hannu Niemelä’s voice, at this stage of his career, is not intrinsically beautiful, under strain it can adopt a wobble and for a stuffed shirt like Escamillo, who is primarily required to sing a glorious Toreador song with melting tone, he isn’t the right person any more but as a complex character like Rigoletto, who has to cover the whole field from the wronged avenger to the loving father, he was superb: sneering, shouting, pleading and in the loving moments with Gilda, adopting a warm pianissimo that was heartrending.

Gilda was also given a heartrending interpretation by the young Russian soprano Irina Dubrovskaya. It is not always that operatic characters look their supposed age but the age relationship between Niemelä and Ms Dubrovskaya seemed extraordinarily right. She had the perfect voice for the role: light, agile, hitting her angelic high notes plumb in the middle and singing ravishing pianissimos. Her Caro nome was sung with such beauty and inwardness as to leave the audience breathless, she was perfect in the duets with Rigoletto and had a natural stage presence.

Her great love, who also becomes her fate, the callous Duke of Mantua, was sung by the Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov. He is also young and visually well suited to the role. In the first scene, the party in the ducal palace, he sang Questa o quella with gusto and glowing tone but his voice seemed rather hard and inflexible, which of course is apt for this character. In the second scene, though, when he meets Gilda disguised as Gualtier Maldè … studente sono … e povero (i.e. “Gualtier Maldè … I’m a student … and poor”) he showed a different side of his armoury. It was still brilliant tenor singing of the show-off kind but with lots of nuances and also some ravishing pianissimos. His big recitative and aria in the third scene was also finely moulded and he ended the aria with another fine pianissimo – though slightly flat. La donna è mobile was more workman like and the final B flat was cut short, which of course is no sin – better than holding on to it for ten seconds as certain un-named tenors could do – but probably he didn’t feel in best shape, since he also took lower options in other places. Both these young singers have potentials to reach the stars. The minor – but important – roles were variable, from a menacing but wobbly Sparafucile to Mati Palm’s thunderous Monterone.

A hero so far unmentioned, was to be found in the pit: conductor Gintaras Rinkevicius, who never let the tension slacken and made this Rigoletto the red-blooded drama it should be. I will be seeing – and reporting on – La Cenerentola on the Estonian National Opera’s home stage within a couple of months and I dearly hope it will be of the same dignity.

Göran Forsling


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Contributors: Marc Bridle, Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling,  Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, John Leeman, Sue Loder,Jean Martin, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, Raymond Walker, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)

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