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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Rigoletto - Melodramma in three acts
Performance details below review
rec. live, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 15 December 1981
DECCA DVD 0743884 [125:00]

This issue has been widely hyped as a recent discovery of the only filmed performance of the Duke of Mantua that Pavarotti sang at the Met. It is a revival of the then new 1977 production by John Dexter (see review) with a cast including Cornell MacNeil as the Duke, Domingo as Rigoletto, Ileana Cotrubas as his daughter with Justino Diaz and Isola Jones as the assassin Sparafucile and his sister Maddalena.

This recording from four years later has all the hallmarks of a routine revival. The only factors in common with 1977 were the presence of Levine on the rostrum and Isola Jones as Maddalena. Levine never gave a duff performance albeit he was inclined to be rather frenetic in Verdi during his earlier years. As to Isola Jones I can only repeat what I wrote in the previous review, she sings and acts well while looking a right tart with her capacious bosoms so under-lifted as to defy the laws of gravity. Otherwise, Pavarotti excepted, it is very much a B-list cast of Verdians in the principal roles with serious inadequacies in a number of cases not least that of Ara Berberian as Sparafucile. Neither Christiane Eda-Pierre nor Louis Quilico are anything near ideal Verdi singers in this most dramatic of operas where weight of tone for the latter, and light-toned vocal flexibility for the former, are basic requirements. As to Pavarotti himself, he sings both his act one Questa o quella (Ch.4) and act three La donna e mobile (Ch.27) with brio, but not much sense of involvement. The latter aspect is all too evident in his opening aria to act two, Ella mi fu rapita! and its cabaletta Parmi veder le lagrime (Chs.17-18) without any sense of expression of concern for Gilda’s whereabouts; this despite the words of concern in the libretto. He might just as well be singing the proverbial telephone directory. Throughout, there is a lack of a director’s firm hand. No revival director is indicated and I would have thought that John Dexter would have got better involvement if he had been present.

In a bonus interview at the time of the original 1977 film, James Levine explained that it was the policy of the Met at that time to refurbish its productions. These were often identified as Zeffirelli spectaculars of a decade or more earlier as in the case of the recording of Otello with Vickers and Scotto (see review). In the present production, designed and costumed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch, the sets are traditional and the costumes in period. Whilst opulent and thoroughly realistic, rather than representational, they are not over the top. Rigoletto is dressed as a jester, complete with stick, whilst the Duke’s various costumes match that standard in appropriateness. In my original review I questioned how long such traditional productions would be seen as the norm with the then new General Director, Peter Gelb, talking about a more modern approach. That outcome became visible and risible in the theatre, and via HD transmission in January 2013; this in an updated Technicolor spectacular directed by Tony Award-winning Director Michael Mayer with sets by Christine Jones. Set in 1960s Las Vegas, complete with casino setting, in the last scene Gilda’s body, throat cut, is stuffed into the boot of a Cadillac. Not something Verdi would recognise as the outcome of his labours and imagination. Whether such an approach will be sustainable over several revivals, and put the paying bottoms of a very conservative audience on seats in a house strapped for cash, and without subsidy, remains to be seen.

For Pavarotti fans only. This traditional production is better served by another Met cast four years earlier.
 
Appendix: Verdi and Rigoletto - Breaking new ground

Verdi’s Rigoletto is based on Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse. In a letter to Piave, his librettist he described it as "the greatest drama of modern times". He saw the character of Tribolet, to become Rigoletto, as one worthy of Shakespeare, and there was no greater compliment in his own mind that Verdi could pen. 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 a Royal Court to that of an independent Duke. Most importantly the changes maintained the historical period most suitable for the impact of Monterone’s curse on Rigoletto’s mind and being. It is with the words Ah! La maledizione! that Rigoletto concludes act 1, as he realises his daughter Gilda has been abducted. They are also his cry at the conclusion of the opera as he realises that she is dead. This phrase, and Rigoletto’s reaction to it, has to carry meaning in any production. A present day curse has little if any meaning. Its significance is best realised in the contextual relationship of the words of a jester at a court of an appropriate period. Equally important is that any production should realistically convey the nature of Rigoletto’s 'day job' alongside his role as protective loving father to a daughter who knows nothing of the rather nasty nature of his work or of her family.
 
In Rigoletto, the first of the great middle-period trio with Il Trovatore and La Traviata, the composer took giant strides in the way he became able to represent characters and their situation in his music. There had been signs of this in act three of Luisa Miller (1849) and more so in Stiffelio (1850). In Rigoletto it is fully realised and this remained his hallmark throughout his remaining nine operas, spread, as they were, over nearly forty years. He made further strides in musical conception in the last two, Otello in 1887 and Falstaff in 1893, the latter composed in the seventy fourth and seventy ninth years of his life.
 
Rigoletto comes tenth in the all-time list of performed operas and second in respect of the Verdi canon after La Traviata.
 
Robert J Farr

Performance details
Duke of Mantua - Luciano Pavarotti (tenor); Rigoletto, his jester - Louis Quilico (baritone); Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter - Christiane Eda-Pierre (soprano); Sparafucile, a villain available for hire as an assassin - Ara Berberian (bass); Maddalena, his sister - Isola Jones (mezzo); Giovanna, Gilda’s Duenna - Batyah Godfrey (mezzo); Count Monterone - Richard J. Clark (baritone); Marullo, a courtier - John Darrenkamp (baritone); Matteo Borsa, a courtier - Charles Anthony (tenor); Count Ceprano - Norman Andersson (baritone); Contess Ceprano - Betsy Norden (soprano)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/James Levine.
Production: John Dexter
Set and Costume Design: Tanya Moiseiwitsch .
Television Director: Brian Large.
Picture format: NTSC/Colour/4:3.
Sound formats: PCM Stereo. dts Surround
Menu language: English
Subtitles: English, German, French