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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Rigoletto (1851)
Il Duca di Mantua – Stephen Costello (tenor)
Rigoletto – Vladimir Stoyanov (bass-baritone)
Gilda – Mélissa Petit (soprano)
Sparafucile – Miklós Sebestyėn (bass baritone)
Maddalena and Giovanna – Katrin Wundsam (mezzo-soprano)
Il Conte di Monterone – Kostas Smoriginas (bass-baritone)
Marullo – Wolfgang Stefan Schwaiger (baritone)
Borsa Matteo – Paul Schweinester (tenor)
Il Conte di Ceprano – Jorge Eleazar (baritone)
La Contessa di Ceprano – Léonie Renaud (soprano)
Un paggio della duchessa – Hyunduk Kim (tenor)
Prague Philharmonic Choir/Lukáš Vasilek; Bregenz Festival Choir/Benjamin LackWiener Symphoniker/Enrique Mazzola
Stage director Philipp Stőlzl; stage designer Philipp Stőlzl, Heike Vollmer; stage designer Kathi Maurer; movement and stunt director, Wendy Hesketh-Ogilvie, artistic director of Wired Aerial Theatre.
rec. July 2019, Bregenz Festival lake stage
Subtitles: English, German (all) + Italian, French, Spanish, Korean, Japanese (opera)
Booklet notes: English, German, French
Bonus film: ‘The Making of Rigoletto’
C MAJOR Blu-ray 751704 [154 mins]

If you suffer from coultrophobia, the fear of clowns, this version of Rigoletto may not be for you. If you don’t, it’s absolutely brilliant. Rigoletto is much more of a clown than a jester at the court of the Duke of Mantua, and he trails a succession of circus acts – tumblers, strong men, trapeze artists – behind him. The stage is dominated by a clown’s head which is more than forty feet high and thirty feet wide.

If you can stomach the smell of the greasepaint, you will be roaring with the rest of the crowd. This is the most amazing and original spectacle, set on the shores of Lake Constance in Austria, recorded live at the Bregenz Festival, beautifully filmed and performed with first-class sound. Right from the start, when we see Rigoletto walking across the sky (thanks to Wired Aerial Theatre), only to end up in the drink, you watch open-mouthed at a series of theatrical coups. I counted eight people in the water in the first half-hour.

The head moves dramatically (thanks to a 32-ton counterweight) and appears able to be to mimic human emotions, while the figure’s right hand has 36-foot-long fingers which form bridges for performers and produce a rude sign when things go badly with the story. On the other side of the head, the left hand holds a forty-two-foot diameter helium-filled balloon which is winched from fifty to one hundred and fifty feet above the action.

Ah yes, the action. French Soprano Mélissa Petit as Gilda manages to sing seductively while hanging off this basket fifty feet in the air, or chained to the moving hand. It must be a health and safety nightmare, and she must have an incredible safety harness in her knickers, but even more amazingly, it works. She is fresh-voiced, charming and credible to the extent that you think about the singing rather than the mechanics. And the singing is very good indeed.

Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov is something of a Verdi expert, and his Rigoletto is secure and powerful. He’s not called on to do quite as many circus acts as Gilda, but he puts on the character of Rigoletto like an old, familiar overcoat and his strong voice make him the centre of attention.

The American tenor Stephen Costello – the Duke of Mantua -- is notable for his beautiful phrasing and technical control. My only reservation is that so much of his acting and singing come from inside the giant head, and is therefore difficult to see. It must have been even worse for the audience last July; in that sense, the disc triumphs over the live performance. But his ‘La donna č mobile’ is a triumph.

The two bass baritones, Hungarian Miklós Sebestyėn as the villain Sparafucile and Lithuanian Kostas Moriginas as the Count of Monterone, whose curse sets the drama in motion, both possess impressive deep voices and great stage presence.

Actually, there is not a weak link in the entire cast, as witness the six minutes of applause at the end. I feared that the elaborate stage gubbins and eye-catching athletics would overwhelm the music, but Philipp Stölzl’s direction of the performance and Enrique Mazzola’s deft conducting of the Wiener Symphoniker work together to increase the appeal of this unusual staging. My only reservation is that even though everyone has a microphone (or how else could they do it?) they tend to try to project as if they haven’t. The result is that everything comes out at mf, and there’s very little extra loud or very soft.

I wondered how the performance was co-ordinated, given that the orchestra was back in the opera house while the performance was taking place on the lake, and how the communications work so well. Thanks to the film, ‘The Making of Rigoletto’, which is also on this disc as a bonus feature, I know how it was done. There are massive video screens behind the audience on which the singers can see the conductor, Enrique Mazzola – some of the time. But, as he explains, they had to do phrase by phrase, bar by bar rehearsals – I bet that was hard work. The film also reveals that Gilda had a stunt double; she’s so well integrated into the action you wouldn’t realise. Oh – and the whole thing cost eight million euros to make! The thirty pounds or so you’ll have to pay for the disc seems like a bargain.
Chris Ramsden

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