Rigoletto, ENO

Having taken the plunge, the ENO management have entrusted the task to
director Christopher Alden. One cannot say they weren’t warned: his
‘nineteenth-century gentleman’s club’ up-date of the opera was castigated
when first seen in Chicago in 2000, subsequently given a make-over and a
kiss-of-life in Toronto in 2011, but no more favourably received. Perhaps Alden
is right to say that we are all conservative conformists, too short-sighted and
timid to appreciate the ‘edginess’ of his conception, but having witnessed
the resurrection of his concept at ENO, I would prefer to conclude that
Alden’s reading is illogical and inconsistent, sacrificing character to
situation and equilibrium to momentarily pleasing but superficial flourishes.

Having recently placed the foppish aristocrats who populate Strauss’s
Der Fledermaus on the Freudian couch, Alden seems to be taking the
same approach here; Rigoletto spends an inordinate amount of time sitting on a
plush chair positioned on the extreme front-right of the stage, lost in
reverie, while a black-gowned, Mrs Danver-like phantom sweeps a black-veil
curtain back and forth across the stage. Is Rigoletto asleep? Is what unfolds
before us a recurring nightmare? Is the action a flashback, a memory? It’s
not really clear; indeed, there are rather too many confusing, unanswered

What is Rigoletto about? The director tells us that he has been
concerned to illuminate the power of the ‘patriarchal nineteenth-century
male’ whose ruthless exercise of authority results in the ‘subjugation of
women’. A valid point in relation to the Duke, certainly: but surely not one
which is appropriate with regard to Rigoletto, who idealises his beloved,
departed wife and worships his daughter, caring more for her than for his own

The jester’s grievances arise from class and ‘difference’; ridiculed
and reviled he hates the Duke and the courtiers for their aristocratic hauteur,
and his fellow man in general as he does not share Rigoletto’s malformation
and affliction. Reflecting Rigoletto’s sense of class injustice, Alden and
his designer, Michael Levine, certainly gives us a sumptuous setting, replacing
the Mantuan court with a gentleman’s gaming club of Verdi’s own epoch.
Gleaming wood-panelled walls, a majestic coffered ceiling, luxurious loungers,
handsome oriental rugs, fragrant palms – the setting presents a fitting
depiction of masculine domination, presumption, and clubby fraternity. Yet,
presumably women would be absent from such a machismo domain? So, how are we to
explain the presence of Giovanna, Gilda’s nurse, who is apparently acting as
a pimp for the ‘genteel’ affiliates and who, insouciantly casting aside
Gilda’s confidences, allows herself to be seduced by the Duke?

Moreover, how can this single room represent ‘both sides of Rigoletto’s
life’ if, as Alden asserts, his tragic error is that he believes he ‘can
neatly divide himself into [these] two separate compartments’? How also can
it evoke the furtive domains of abduction, subterfuge and murder, which are
equally important in the opera? The libretto distinguishes the various locale:
opulent royal court, Rigoletto’s humble abode, Sparafucile’s scrubby inn.
Alden commits a really shocking betrayal of musical form and meaning in the
final Act, where Sparafucile and Maddalena lurk within the seedy bar plotting
murder while Gilda and Rigoletto crouch outside in the darkness, alone,
betrayed, disillusioned. This spatial division is embedded in the form of the
quartet, and underscores the poignancy of the discovery of the treachery. To
present all participants within a single space severely undermines the musical
and dramatic potency of Verdi’s score.

In addition, we need to see Rigoletto’s private world in order to
understand his humanity. Alden suggests that the jester’s sequestered domain
reveals his schizophrenia, that he is ‘sweetly sentimental in his desire to
keep his daughter pure and uncorrupted by the outside world’. But, surely we
are meant to believe that Rigoletto’s love for his daughter is genuine rather
than sentimentally self-deceptive. Physically and mentally deformed, his one
redeeming quality is his filial devotion … otherwise, what is the tragedy?
Moreover, Alden thrusts Gilda into the public sphere; in this production, there
is no protected space where she is sheltered by fatherly concern –
contradicting his observation that the women are all ‘locked safely away at
home’. If that is the case, who then is the crazed banshee in white petticoat
flailing and wailing amid the patriarchal associates?

More than this, the characters, dressed identically, are hard to
distinguish. The men wear tuxedos; the women black. Even Rigoletto dons evening
dress, and his ‘fool’s cap’ is passed among the company. Alden suggests
that the opera critiques the ‘abuses of monarchy’: ‘It is a nightmare
about an all-powerful and irresponsible ruler’. Too true: Hugo’s Le roi
ran into problems with the censors precisely because it seemed
to portray the cynical immorality of a monarch. But, such a dismissive
disregard relies on absolute power. What is there here to distinguish the Duke
from his fellow club members? He brandishes a sword in ‘Questa o quella’
– a phallic flourish or a moment of Giovanni-esque defiance? Is it the
Duke’s way with the women – he is according to Alden a ‘personification
of unbridled libido’ – that ordains him unqualified power? And, if so, what
are we to make of the fact that Sparafucile and his sister Maddalena seem to be
engaged in an incestuous relationship?

Worn out by these unfathomable and irritating details, one feels strangely
detached from the events playing before one’s eyes. Thank heavens, therefore,
for a superb cast of soloists. As the eponymous anti-hero, Hawaiian baritone
Quinn Kelsey was stunning. He brought a conversational naturalness to the
jester’s outburst and intimacies, fully appreciating the psychological depth
and complexity of his character – regardless of the staging, his Rigoletto
was not ‘all-powerful and irresponsible’ but rather a flawed man governed
by a virulent desire for vengeance and retribution, his sense of triumph
tragically undermined by the desecration and loss of his only love. The
jester’s long Act 2 recitativo accompagnato, in which he bitterly
compares himself with the assassin, was a portrait of chastened self-awareness
combined with passionate self-pity. Kelsey injected both defiance and
lamentation into the conversational lines, reaching out to the audience and for
the first time winning our sympathy. Elsewhere – as when the courtiers called
for vengeance at the end of the first scene – Rigoletto’s long-smouldering
hatred was conveyed by a well-judged roughness in the voice which suggested a
fateful grievance against the world and an internalised torture.

Barry Bank carried off the Duke’s superficial gallantry with cynical ease
and complacent grace. The top notes glided; the tone rang brightly. He sounded
almost too good to be true; it was no wonder the unworldly Gilda was enrapt.

Peter Rose’s Sparafucile was an embodiment of dark menace. His cavernous
bass suggested a man who knows he is damned but who, like an East-End gangster,
adheres to a mysterious but steadfast code of honour. Rose cautiously
negotiated his contract with the equally villainous jester, as if feeling
through the darkness of a moral quagmire.

As Gilda, Anna Christy brought an alluring richness but not the necessary
naivety to the role. The tone was appealing and the coloratura accurate and
florid, richly expressive of her love for her father. But Christy lacked the
tender, childlike simplicity of one who does not even know her father’s name.
‘Caro nome’, in which Gilda reflects on the name of the one who has first
awoken her to love, was vocally accomplished but did not always match
superlative technique with psychological expression.

Justina Gringyte (Maddalena), Diana Montague (Giovanna) and David Stout
(Monterone) made strong contributions also. The male chorus remained on-stage
throughout and sang virulently; but their sexual voyeurism, the lynching of
Monterone, and their indulgence is outlandish sexual display when Gilda was
murdered seemed oddly out-of-place in a gentleman’s club – especially when,
in the latter instance, moments before they had been sedately reading the
newspapers …

Overall, a major problem was that despite the tense and visceral musical
fabric drawn from the orchestra by conductor Graeme Jenkins, the dramatic
momentum was weak. Too often Rigoletto was to be found asleep in the chair and
the scene changes were clunky. Thus, there was a noticeable hiatus between the
two scenes of Act 1: we stared at gauzy black curtain while furniture was
shifted noisily shifted beyond. Moreover, too often innermost conversations
were presented in a dislocated manner. For example, when Gilda and Rigoletto
conversed earnestly and intimately they were placed at opposing extremes of the
fore-stage, facing the audience. If they cannot connect with each other, how
can we emphasise with their tragedy?

In Verdi’s score, after the conventional operatic ‘last breaths’,
Gilda is granted a conventional ‘resurrection’: the nineteenth-century
heroine’s standard final words of forgiveness and self-condemnation.
Verdi’s opera must close with Rigoletto’s wild cry of grief and despair:
‘The curse is fulfilled.’ But, Alden’s Gilda rises like an angel and
floats towards a glaring light, presumably to join her mother in the afterlife.
Alden declares that Rigoletto is an ‘incendiary work’; but, here
he unequivocally quenches the fire. The cold brightness that illuminates
Gilda’s final steps ‘blinds’ us – the black veil that has separated us
from the action has smothered the flame of sympathy too.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Duke of Mantua, Barry Banks; Rigoletto, Quinn Kelsey; Gilda, Anna
Christy; Sparafucile, Peter Rose; Maddalena, Justine Gringyte; Giovanna, Diana
Montague; Count Monterone, David Stout; Marullo, George Humphreys; Borsa,
Anthony Gregory; Count Ceprano, Barnaby Rea; Countess Ceprano, Susan Rann;
Page, Joanne Appleby; Usher, Paul Sheehan; Conductor, Graeme Jenkins; Director,
Christopher Alden; Designer, Michael Levine; Lighting Designer, Duane Schuler;
Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera. English National Opera, London
Coliseum, Thursday 13th February 2014.

image_description=Anna Christy and Quinn Kelsey [Photo by Alastair Muir]
product_title=Rigoletto, ENO
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Anna Christy and Quinn Kelsey [Photo © Alastair Muir]