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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Rigoletto, Melodramma in three acts (1851)
Duke of Mantua, Marcelo Álvarez (ten); Rigoletto, his jester, Carlos Álvarez (bar); Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter, Inva Mula (sop); Sparafucile, a villain available for hire as an assassin, Julian Konstantinaov (bass); Maddalena, his sister, Nino Surguladze (mezzo); Giovanna, Gilda’s Duenna, Merce Obiol (mezzo); Count Monterone, Stanislav Shevts (bass); Marullo, a courtier, Joan Martin-Roya (bar); Matteo Borsa, a courtier, John Plazaola (ten); Count Ceprano, Davis Rubiera (bar); Contess Ceprano, Sandra Galiano (sop)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona/Jesus Lopez-Cobos
Directed by Graham Vick. Set and Costume Design by Paul Brown
TV and Video Director, Pietro d’Agostino
rec. live, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, December 2004
Sound format, DD 5.1. DTS 5.1. LPCM stereo. Picture format 16:9
Introductory essay in English, German and French
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish

Verdi’s Rigoletto is based on Victor Hugo’s play ‘Le Roi s’amuse’. In a letter to his librettist, Francesca Maria Piave, he describes it as ‘the greatest drama of modern times’. He saw the character of Tribolet, to become Rigoletto, as a character worthy of Shakespeare; there was no greater compliment in his own mind that Verdi could pen. It was to be his seventeenth opera. The composer was greatly stimulated by the thought of the composition even during his work on its predecessor, Stiffelio, and may even have started on its composition before the latter’s completion. Fearing that the subject of a licentious monarch might not be to the censor’s liking, he sought assurances from Piave, a native of Venice, as to its reception from the authorities. On receipt of those assurances he joined Piave in Venice, presented the outline and was appalled at the response. The censor not only objected to a king being involved, and the general immorality of the story, but also such minutiae as Rigoletto’s hunchback and the body of Gilda being on stage in a sack. In high dudgeon with Piave as well as the censor, Verdi returned home to Busseto and sought to withdraw his new opera for La Fenice, offering a revised Stiffelio with a new last act instead. He also threatened to withhold his librettist’s fee. Piave and the officers of La Fenice worked on the powers that be in the city and eventually a compromise was reached which enabled Verdi to keep to the principles of Victor Hugo’s play.

The premiere came at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, on 11 March 1851. The compromise involved a change from the French court to that of an independent Duke, but allowed for a historical period most suitable for scenic and dramatic effect, particularly in respect of the impact of the curse on Rigoletto’s personal psyche. It is with the words ‘Ah! La maladezione!’ with which Rigoletto concludes act 1, as he realises his daughter Gilda has been abducted. These are his final cry at the conclusion of the opera as he realises she is dead. This phrase and Rigoletto’s reaction to it has to be meaningful in any production. A curse in the year 2004 has little if any meaning. Its significance is best realised in the contextual relationship of the words and a jester at a court of an appropriate period. Equally important is conveying the nature of Rigoletto’s day job and his role of protective loving father to a daughter who knows nothing of the nasty nature of his work, its environment, nor of her family.
This production is shared between Madrid, Florence, Palermo and the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, where this video originates; each theatre fielding their own choice of cast. The prelude opens with Rigoletto seated on a large chair in front of a vivid red curtain, perhaps symbolic of the blood to be shed (Ch.2). This chair features throughout the staging. Rigoletto looks haggard, his face is scarred and the shape of his head distorted. The centre-stage rotates, another feature of this production, to reveal the court of the Duke. Sat around the outside of the curved walls as the stage rotates are women on stools, perhaps the Duke’s previous amours. As the courtiers enter, they and the Duke are recognisably in period in respect of costume; it could well be any period between the 13th and 16th centuries. But the first sign of visual discontinuity comes as the courtiers sit on what looks like a curved row of cinema seats as Rigoletto taunts Monterone (Ch.9). Also evident is that the Rigoletto of Carlos Álvarez is not in good voice, with a tendency to vocal dryness and unsteadiness. The Monterone of Stanislav Shevts is physically and vocally imposing although his humiliation, and that of his daughter, is not well handled. As the action moves to scene two (Ch. 10), Rigoletto is seated once again on that chair in front of the red curtain and in full light. Sparafucile enters through the curtain; there is no attempt at the darkness of their venue and the nature of their conversation, which is vividly represented in Verdi’s haunting melody at this point.

Julian Konstantinov acts the role of the assassin well, but his voice is not wholly steady. Just how unsteady Carlos Álvarez’s voice is, becomes very evident in the aria Pari siamo as Rigoletto compares their relative professions (Ch.11). Before moving into his home, Rigoletto removes his jesters’ shoes and clothing and puts them in a valise as the curtain lifts to reveal Gilda in front of a dressing table in an area with a light well and a fruit tree. Gilda is dressed in a very appealing blue dress of indeterminate period. During their duet Gilda bathes Rigoletto’s hump; a rather grisly scene as this deformity looks more like a tumour than a scoliosis (Ch.12). Again Carlos Álvarez’s lack of vocal colour and rawness of tone is a distraction from Verdi’s melodic music although his diction and acting are fine. Aided by Gilda’s companion the Duke enters and he and Gilda sing of their love (Ch.16). In this duet Marcelo Álvarez, as the Duke, shows the utmost sensitivity, softening his tone so as to sing to Gilda not at her, as some tenors tend to do. Although they don’t quite manage to finish together, it is a vocal highlight. The lovers are disturbed by noise and the Duke departs (Ch.17). It is the courtiers plotting Gilda’s abduction and still looking the part. In the aria Gualtier Maldé! as Gilda muses over her love and over the pseudonym Gualter Maldé the incognito Duke has given her, Inva Mula sings with full lyrical soprano tone and good diction. Her coloratura is somewhat abbreviated and her trill is nothing to speak of, nonetheless she colours her voice well. As well as her appealing appearance and good acting she brings character and meaning to the words. The courtiers arrive to abduct Gilda, confusing Rigoletto into holding the ladder to scale the wall of his own house (Chs.19-20). This is not well portrayed and the courtiers look absolutely ridiculous in coloured party hats, clown coloured hair and red noses.
Act 2 opens with Marcelo Álvarez’s Duke in his bedroom, which is complete with large, rotating, ceiling fan. His dressing gown does little for his portly figure. He sings Ella mi fu rapita…Parmi veder le lagrime (Ch.21) with good phrasing, vocal colour and expression. The courtiers arrive, complete with their stupid noses, hats and hair to tell him of their actions. He runs off to his bedroom to find Gilda; the room is complete with modern bed and sheets. The courtiers view the consequences, as voyeurs, via a window in the bedroom door. Thankfully they are back in period and sensible state as Rigoletto pleads to know his daughter’s whereabouts and berates them in Cotigiani,vil razza dannata (Ch.26) where his singing is well characterised and his acting exemplary. Gilda emerges, raped and dress dishevelled from the Duke’s bedroom to confess all to her father in Tutte la feste (Ch.28). The full tonal quality evident in her singing in act 1 allows her to give full vent to her mixed emotions. In the great father-daughter duet of this scene (Chs.28-29) Rigoletto does little to comfort his daughter, swearing revenge whilst she pleads forgiveness. These conflicting emotions probably explain Rigoletto throwing the Duke’s clothes on the floor whilst Gilda flings herself back onto the Duke’s bed. The story of act three shows she loves the Duke and is prepared to give her life to save him, but at this point she is still ashamed and not brazenly seeking a repetition of her recent sexual experience. The stage rotates to show Monterone on his way to prison and regretting the lack of any result of his curse.
In act 3 the circular centre-stage acts as Sparafucile’s home. It is sparsely furnished with a modern tubular-legged table and two chairs. The circular stage is at a heavily raked angle. Outside Rigoletto is showing Gilda what the Duke is about as he sings, with shapely phrasing and vocal élan, the most famous aria of the opera, La donna e mobile (Ch. 31). The Duke is dressed in uniform and carries a sword and is joined by Maddalena in high heels and dressed in an open vivid yellow dressing gown that reveals her black underskirt and stockings. She takes her fee as the Duke sings of his love for her whilst Rigoletto forces Gilda to watch. At this point Gilda looks as if she has come from the best couturier in town. She is dressed in a gown, carrying a stole and with her hair set as if from the best hairdresser. She looks a bit like a 1920s flapper for whom a bit on the side would be neither here nor there, rather than a recently and violently violated virgin. Perhaps she had grown up rather quickly. It is one interpretation of the words of the quartet as she pleads with her father to forgive and spare the Duke his revenge. Her return, dressed as a boy, is more convincing, while Maddalena’s vamping of the Duke is severely restricted by having to move about on the raked stage in her stilettos. The entrance and stabbing of Gilda as she sacrifices herself to save the Duke is well handled as Jesus Lopez-Cobos whips up a fairly bland storm. The body in the sack is taken and dumped on that chair, now centre-stage. Rigoletto vents his hate on what he thinks is the Duke’s body with thumps and kicks before tipping it onto the floor. Only then, as he hears the reprise of the start of La donna e mobile does he realise that all is not well. This is dramatically portrayed and sung by Carlos Álvarez and the final duet is poignant (Ch.38).
I have gone into some detail about the staging and costumes for two reasons. First to highlight some of the visual incongruities, some of which might point to modern situations. Second, to stress the fact that the setting and costumes have sufficient time in appropriate period to give validity to Rigoletto’s day job and his response to the curse. If these are Graham Vick’s objectives then they are realised and despite some reservations the staging works.
There is plenty of competition on DVD. David McVicar’s 2002 Covent Garden’s production includes Marcelo Álvarez’s Duke with Paolas Gavanelli’s powerfully acted and sung Rigoletto. Edward Downes on the rostrum brings out every nuance in the music. The costumes are in period with modernistic representational sets (BBC/Opus Arte OA0829D). The sparsely set Verona performance of 2001 with Nucci as Rigoletto has recently been re-issued at mid price (TDK DV-OPRIGM - see a colleague’s original review). Of older recordings, in the Met production of 1977 John Dexter took the paintings of the Venetian painter Giorgione as a starting point. His evocative re-creating of the painter’s ‘The Tempest’ during Levine’s vivid rendering of the storm is memorable whilst the stabbing of Gilda is ruthlessly played out. The performance features a young Domingo as the Duke, a vivid Rigoletto from Cornell MacNeil and an affecting Gilda from Ileana Cotrubas. Although the colours look their age and it’s in 4:3 the sound is fine (DG 073 093 9). Pavarotti fans will find his Duke on the film of the opera. Set in location, and with period costume, it is complete with appropriately misty and murky canal for dumping the body (DG 00440 073 4166). The Rigoletto of the Scandinavian baritone Ingvar Wixell, with his stocky stature and chubby cheeks, fails to convince me visually, and taking the sound and picture quality into consideration, I personally find the Covent Garden performance the most satisfying. Marcelo Álvarez is always going to be a bit wooden in his acting, but the sound is better balanced and hasn’t the slightly hard edge of this Barcelona performance which accentuates the voices at the expense of the orchestra.
Robert J Farr



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