Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Rigoletto (Covent Garden Dress Rehearsal)

A friend (Ll) is trying out for a place in the reknowned orchestra of the Royal Opera House. She invited me, along with her husband (G) to come and watch the dress rehearsal of Rigoletto.

G remarked before the performance that he'd always thought that Rigoletto was a silly work. He knows much more about music than I do, and so I was a bit worried by this.

not even slightly silly
In fact he challenged me to name a sillier opera (which proved to be easy, opera being an essentially silly sport.)

I've never thought of Rigoletto as at all silly. But then I've only ever seen it in English at the Coliseum, in Jonathan Miller's famous New York Mafia production. Actually I've seen it three times there.

The mafia is really the only modern environment which still works in the old style of fragmented Renaissance Italy or pre-Tudor England. In the famous BBC production of I, Claudius, the actors were reportedly at a loss for motivation, so different is the Roman world, until they hit on the idea of imagining the emperors as bosses of a particularly terrifying mob.

So people began to think that Rigoletto, set in a Renaissance which we all unconsciously model as the modern world with castles, was a silly opera.

In Jonathan Miller's production, he reconnected the audience with the terror of Rigoletto's situation by recasting the Duke as a mob boss.

It's a good idea, but one is always conscious of the metaphor. It's a good metaphor, but it leaks a little.

This production plays it straight and with great force. There is no metaphor in the way, and the Duke's court is a violent, unstable, debauched and very very dangerous place. There's a terrible sense of shifting power structures, and of rapid, pointless falls. Violation, humiliation, and loss of honour, all deadly, are ever present, and death itself is much more than a shadow hanging over the court.

The wonder is that all this is communicated. No one could be in any doubt about the seriousness of the character's troubles. No metaphor is needed.

The vileness of the Duke's character and intentions are made quite clear by having his recently discarded, humilated and broken lover snivelling under the stairs as he sings his love song.

Poor Rigoletto never has any choice about what he is or what he does. A moral man who is a cripple in a time of innumerable starving beggars, blood feud, poverty and disease has somehow found that his vicious wit and caustic contempt for the moral decay around him can entertain the capricious Duke and provide a place in this awful world for him and for his daughter, the one pure thing in his life. But it is no safe or comfortable place. Dmitri Hvorostovsky sings and acts all this with power and glory.

At the beginning of the opera, we were warned that, this being a dress rehearsal, some of the singers might choose to 'mark'. I'd never heard this word before, but apparently it means that they might sing quietly, or move their parts into easier ranges to spare their voices.

That probably explains what seemed like a weak start from the Duke, Wookyung Kim, but once he saw that he was playing to a packed and enthusiastic house, he sportingly changed his mind and gave it everything even though some of us were just freeloading. He sang superbly after that.

But as good as these two were, the high point of the singing for me was Gilda, Patrizia Ciofi. Her clarity and beauty stood out in a production where everyone was wonderful. She did miss one obvious high note, and I saw Rigoletto, leaning over her, supposedly in an agony of grief and despair, discreetly give her a friendly smile and a wink. Seeing that the actors care about each other only enhanced the humanity of the production for me.

Gilda was utterly innocent and beautiful in a world of grim horror and mortal danger.

In the mafia version, Maddalena, the waitress with a heart of gold, is a harmless beauty that I usually fall for over the course of the evening. In this one Daniella Innamorati is a ferociously sexual corrupt and murderous whore with one last scruple. And her only scruple only leads to more horror. Not that I didn't fall for her anyway.

When Gilda looks into Sparafucile and Maddalena's hovel and exclaims that she is looking into hell, she is only putting the obvious truth into words.

I feel, as people apparently felt when they first saw Jonathan Miller's version, that I've seen Rigoletto again for the first time. And G now says that it's one of his favourite operas, to be taken seriously.

One quibble, and it's Verdi's fault, not the production's:

The opera should end with Rigoletto crowing victoriously over the sack that contains his daughter's body. This is the climax of the horror, utterly devastating.

Gilda's unlikely revival and lengthy farewell only release the fracturing tension. The triumph of this production is that by the time of the sack, I'd forgotten that it was an opera I was watching, completely transported by story and music and emotion into elemental realms of involvement.

Covent Garden tell this story straight and well. It doesn't need an operatic swan song. They should cut it, and end it at a dead stop with Rigoletto's crowing. Turn off the lights and let the audience shiver in the dark.

The bassoon playing was excellent throughout.

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