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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Rigoletto - melodrama in three acts (1851)
Duke of Mantua - Plácido Domingo (ten); Rigoletto, his jester - Cornell MacNeil (bar); Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter - Ileana Cotrubas (sop); Sparafucile, a villain available or hire as an assassin - Justino Diaz (bass); Maddalena, his sister - Isola Jones (mezzo); Giovanna, Gilda’s Duenna - Ariel Bybee (mezzo); Count Monterone - John Cheek (bar); Marullo, a courtier - Robert Goodloe (bar); Matteo Borsa, a courtier - James Atherton (ten); Count Ceprano - Philip Booth (bar); Countess Ceprano - Loretta Di Franco (sop)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/James Levine.
Production by John Dexter. Set and Costume Design by Tanya Moiseiwitsch.
Television Director: Kirk Browning
Audio Producer: John Pfeiffer
rec. live, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 7 November 1977
Bonus interviews and survey of Rigoletto at The Met
Picture format: NTSC/Colour/4:3
Sound formats: PCM Stereo. DTS 5.1. DOLBY digital 5.1
Menu language: English. Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish and Chinese.

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.
Premiered 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.
This 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 review) 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.
These 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.
As 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.
What 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.
I 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



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