Verdi’s Rigoletto is
based on Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse. In a letter
to his librettist, Piave, the composer describes it as ‘the
greatest drama of modern times’. He saw the character of
Tribolet, to become Rigoletto, as a character worthy of Shakespeare,
and from Verdi there was no greater compliment.
at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, on 11 March 1851 Rigoletto was
his 17th opera. It did not reach the stage without
hassle. The censor objected to a king being involved, the
general immorality of the story, and such minutiae as Rigoletto’s
being a hunchback and the body of Gilda being on stage in
a sack. Verdi compromised whilst maintaining the principles
of Victor Hugo’s play. The compromise involved a change from
the French court to that of an independent Duke. Most importantly
the changes allowed for a historical period most suitable
for the impact of the curse on Rigoletto’s mind and being.
It is with the words Ah! La maladizione! that Rigoletto
concludes act 1, as he realises his daughter Gilda has been
abducted, and this is his final cry at the conclusion of
the opera as he realises she is dead. This phrase and Rigoletto’s
reaction to it have to be meaningful in any production. A
curse in the present day has little if any meaning. Its significance
is best realised in the contextual relationship of the words
and of a jester at a court of an appropriate period. Equally
important is that the production realistically conveys the
nature of Rigoletto’s day job, his role of protective and
loving father to a daughter who knows nothing of the rather
nasty nature of his work, its environment, nor of her family.
production by John Dexter with sets and costumes by Tanya
Moiseiwitsch was new in the year of this performance. As
James Levine explains, in a bonus interview, the Metropolitan
Opera was aiming at renewing its productions whilst maintaining
contact and artistic integrity with the composer’s intentions.
By the standard of 2006 it might be deemed a very traditional
production, particularly when compared with those at the
Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, in December 2004 (see
or that at Covent Garden in 2002 directed by
Graham Vick with sets and costume by Paul Brown (BBC/Opus
Arte OA0829D). The set in each act is built round a central
tower. The brief glimpse the television director affords
us, in other than mid-shot and close-up, hardly shows the
very detailed and extensive naturalistic sets. In act 1 the
tower is a minstrel’s gallery from which the Duke and Rigoletto
look down on the activities of the court. Compared with the
Covent Garden production the activities are distinctly non-Rabelaisian
and modest even though a ‘naked’ lady in a close body stocking
is briefly shown as she dances waving a silk wraparound.
Later in act 1 the tower comes in useful as the upstairs
of Rigoletto’s house from where Gilda is abducted. Likewise
in act 3 it is the upper area in Sparafucile’s house where
the Duke retires during the storm whilst Maddalena argues
with her brother for his life, with Gilda listening outside.
are opulent and thoroughly realistic sets rather than representational.
Likewise with the costumes; Rigoletto is dressed as a jester,
complete with stick, whilst the Duke’s various costumes match
that standard in appropriateness. Such sets and costumes
are very expensive. These days it seems that the Met is the
only house that, usually with private donations, affords
them. How long such traditional productions will be seen
as the norm at the Met remains to be seen. The new General
Director, Peter Gelb, is talking about a more modern approach.
Whether this will be sustainable, and put paying bottoms
of a very conservative audience on seats, in a house without
subsidy, remains to be seen.
well as traditional productions, the Met has always fielded
casts from the premier division of international singers
since at least the days of Caruso. As the fragile and innocent
Gilda, who sacrifices herself for the Duke, Ileana Cotrubas
sings with appealing light tone, flexibility and good characterisation.
The video director’s penchant for close-ups cannot, however,
disguise the fact that she is not a young girl. As the Duke
the young Placido Domingo is tall and handsome enough to
turn any girl’s head. Without too may Otellos behind him
his tenor voice is lyric, tightly-focused and musical with Questa
o quella (Ch.4) being sung with abandon and La donna
e mobile (Ch.27) with élan. Likewise in Ella
mi fu rapita … Parmi
veder le lagrime (Chs.16-17)
Domingo reflects the Duke’s mind and uncertainties. The American
baritone Cornell MacNeil sings Rigoletto. In the bonus interview
he explains how he had re-studied the role for the production
having sung it around two hundred times before. That experience
is evident in his superbly acted portrayal as gleeful jester,
fearful father and superstitious man. It is also evident
in vocal characterisation and diction. Although there is
some wear in the voice evidenced by a certain dryness MacNeil
is never unsteady and doesn’t force or sing through his tone.
He conveys the many moods within Pari siamo (Ch. 7)
as he reflects on his meeting with Sparafucile, his own position
as jester and Gilda’s presence. The three great father-daughter
duets, Figlia … Mia padre of act 1 (Ch.8), that surrounding
Gilda’s desperate Tutte le feste in act 2 (Chs.22-25)
and the finale as Rigoletto discovers the body in the sack
is his daughter and she dies (Chs.33-34) are full of emotion.
With both singers acting and portraying their parts in body,
face and voice superbly well, and despite excessive close-ups
that do highlight MacNeil’s glances at the conductor as well
as Cotrubas’s age, these are significant plus points in favour
of this performance. Justino Diaz’s tall Sparafucile is visually
threatening, particularly as he is seen sharpening his knife
at the start of act 3 (Ch.26), but lacks some vocal weight.
As his sister Maddalena, Isola Jones sings with lustrous
tone. She is costumed as a tart with her capacious bosoms
so under- and up-lifted as to defy the laws of gravity, whilst
her propositioning of the Duke passes with barely a notice.
also passes with little notice is the storm music of act
3 and other dramatic orchestral moods. This reflects the
sound balance, which is very much in favour of the voices,
and also James Levine’s rather bland approach to the score.
Yes, Rigoletto is a singer’s opera, but Verdi also
poured into it some of his most dramatic as well as melodic
music. That said, the vivid colours of the production have
come up amazingly well and the sound is clear.
believe the Met archive contains several hundred video recordings
of performances in traditional productions such as this.
Their appearance on DVD will always be welcomed, not least
in Verdi, as the quality of the singing in the 1970 and 1980s
was as good as it gets.
Robert J Farr
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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