Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Rigoletto - Melodramma in three acts (1851)
Duke of Mantua, Juan Diego Florez (tenor)
Rigoletto, his jester - Zeljko Lucic (baritone)
Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter - Diana Damrau (soprano)
Sparafucile, a villain available for hire as an assassin – Georg Zeppenfeld (bass)
Maddalena, his sister – Christa Mayer (mezzo)
Giovanna, Gilda’s Duenna – Angela Liebold (mezzo)
Count Monterone, Markus Marquardt (bass)
Marullo, a courtier - Matthias Henneburg (baritone)
Matteo Borsa, a courtier – Oliver Ringelhahn (tenor)
Count Ceprano - Markus Butter (baritone)
Contess Ceprano - Kyung-Hae Kang (soprano)
Male voices of the Sächsische Dresden and Orchestra of the Staatsoper Dresden/Fabio Luisi
Directed by Nicholas Lehnhoff
Set Design by Raimund Bauer
Costume Design by Bettina Walter
rec. live, Staatsoper Dresden, June 2008
Television Director - Robin Lough
NTSC all regions. Picture format: 16/9. Colour. Sound formats: LPCM Stereo. DTS 5.1. Dolby 5:1 Surround
Subtitles in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish
VIRGIN CLASSICS DVD 6418689 [137:00]

Verdi’s Rigoletto is based on Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse. In a letter to his librettist, 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, and there was no greater compliment in his own mind that Verdi could pen. Premiered at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, on 11 March 1851 it 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 agreed changes did allow for a historical period suitable for the impact of the curse on Rigoletto’s mind and being. It is with the words Ah! La maledizione! with which Rigoletto concludes act 1, as he realises his daughter Gilda has been abducted, and it is his final cry at the conclusion of the opera as he realises she is dead. This phrase and Rigoletto’s reaction to it should carry meaning in any production. Such a curse in the present day has little if any significance. For best effect, in my view, its impact is best realised in the contextual relationship of the words and a jester at a court of an appropriate period. Equally important is the production realistically conveying the nature of Rigoletto’s day job, his role of protective loving father to a daughter who knows nothing of the rather nasty nature of his work, its environment, nor of her family.

This production in Dresden was eagerly awaited in Europe alongside a degree of fear as it featured the European debut of the world’s foremost and extra special leggiero coloratura tenor, Juan Diego Florez, in the lyric role of the Duke. Would the licentious Duke suit his temperament and how would he accommodate his undoubted vocal skills to a different fach of lyric tenor in Verdi’s demanding dramatic music? The answers are several. In the opening brief Questa o quella (CH 4) he is appropriately full of vocal brio, but in the second scene at Rigoletto’s home, in the duet with Gilda, whom he convinces that he is a poor student, doubts begin to arise (CHs 12-14). It is not so much any sign of vocal strain at this point, more that he seems less than convincing vocally in his suit of her, lacking that ardent vocal characterisation so evident in Figaro’s suit of Rosina in Rossini’s Il Barbiere. By then it is evident that he is using a different part of his voice than we usually hear from him in the works of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. Nor does the rather idiosyncratic staging of Rigoletto’s home and the Duke’s entry help him at this point. But it is the start of act 2 when the Duke in his study (CH 12 et seq) agonises over the whereabouts of Gilda in Ella mi fu rapita (She was stolen from me) that the strain on his instrument and his own awareness of it is more evident. It is not that his phrasing lacks elegance, rather that he is not giving it his all in his normal inimitable manner. Many of his fans will enjoy his portrayal despite these reservations whilst he himself, always aware of the need to care for his voice via suitability of repertoire, cancelled performances scheduled in Madrid in 2009 shortly after this Dresden run. In an interview in Opera (July 2009 pp 772-79) he is adamant in stating I won’t sing it (the Duke) for at least ten or 15 years, because it pushes my voice a little bit. One could wish other tenors had been as wise in the management of their precious instrument.

A performance of Rigoletto involves other principals and production values. Singers first, Diana Damrau is outstanding as Gilda with pure even vocal production and characterisation with a trill to die for in Caro nome (CH 15). Elsewhere her acting is convincing although Gilda’s costumes lack design cohesion. I use the plural carefully as Gilda spends most of the time in a white halter-necked gown or the white nightdress in which she is abducted. An incongruity to me is that she emerges from the Duke’s bedroom in act 2 with her nightdress bloodied from her violent defloration (CH 24) yet emerges from the sack, into which she had been put after her stabbing by Sparafucile, without a stain on the halter-necked gown (CH 37). Perhaps the dry-cleaning bills were too expensive for Dresden’s budget! Be that as it may, Damrau sings with beauty of tone and phrasing allied to consummate characterisation throughout. These characteristics are particularly notable as she refers to her mother with plangent phrasing that contrasts starkly with her agonising in act two as she recounts to her father her seeing the Duke in church and her abduction in Tutte le feste l tempio (CH 25). Hers is the outstanding vocal portrayal in this production and therein lies a weakness. Surely, the eponymous role should be the one that dominates in this of all Verdi’s operas. Zeljko Lucic as Rigoletto has a strong baritone but his voice lacks heft and seems, to me, to be more suitable for Mozart’s or Rossini’s Figaro than Verdi’s Rigoletto. His tone lacks variety of colour and becomes dry as early as Pari siamo as Rigoletto compares himself with the assassin Sparafucile (CH 8). Zeljko Lucic lacks the dramatic vocal bite for this most demanding of all of Verdi’s baritone roles. This is particularly evident as Rigoletto pleads with, and then berates the courtiers, in Cortigiani, vil razza dannata (CH 23). The Sparafucile of Georg Zeppenfeld is, by comparison, a wholly convincing vocal and acted realisation as when he first meets Rigoletto (CH 7) and offers his services. In the final act he is chilling in response to his sister’s pleas to spare the Duke as he insists on a victim so that he receives his payment, not being fussed about substituting the next person to seek shelter in their house (CHs 33-34), although why he searches for, and plays with a pistol, before the stabbing is directorial nonsense.

The costumes of Nicholas Lehnhoff’s production are updated. Rigoletto, in gabardine and trilby as he meets Sparafucile and in the last act, merely having the clown’s tricorn as an added appendage in his hand at other times than in the first scene. The set in the first scene is predominantly black and enclosed with the courtiers in black tuxedos and grossly shaped latex facemasks with horn protrusions whose implication defeats me. The ladies are similarly dressed in formal black with some bare-breasted as they besport themselves in some kind of orgy. The second scene, and last act, involves a split stage for Gilda’s bedroom and Sparafucile’s house. These are shoebox shaped and enclosed. This arrangement allows the portrayal of the Duke’s arrival and entrance, to Rigoletto’s home as well as the abducting courtiers and, in the last act, for Rigoletto and Gilda to observe the Duke’s seduction of Maddalena and the removal of her body in a sack. The portrayal of Rigoletto’s meeting with Sparafucile is suitably eerie and threatening, as the music conveys. The visual impact here contrasts with that that of the last scene as the jester discovers it is his daughter in the sack. Un-bloodied from her stabbing, she manages to stand upright whilst her father moves away from her until returning and lowering her as she dies and he sings those final despairing Gilda! Mia Gilda … E morta! Ah la maledizione (CH 37). This lack of physical comfort of his daughter by Rigoletto is also evident as she emerges from her ravishing in act 2 and certainly is contrary to the music that, whilst conveying his agony, also has the compassion that Verdi brings to the father-daughter relationship throughout the opera. In my view, too much of this set and production arises from desire for effect and not for representing, even in modern dress, Verdi’s creation. Fabio Luisi conducts the music with more lyrical grace than drama.

As with other of these bargain-priced Virgin DVDs the supportive leaflet is unsatisfactory. There are a lot of credits and a few coloured photographs but no synopsis or chapter listing. I have indicated some of what should be a minimum requirement! For information of readers, act 1 starts with Chapter 2 and concludes with the abduction of Gilda at Chapter 17. Act 2 extends from Chapters 18 to 28 and act 3 from 19 to 37. The final Chapter (38) is taken up with extensive credits and curtain-calls; the directorial team receive modest applause and no boos, but then quirky productions started in East Germany before infecting lyric theatres further West and South.

Robert J Farr

It will be a few years yet before Juan Diego Florez brings to Verdi’s music the vocal skills and nuance evident in his singing of the bel canto composers.