Verdi: Rigoletto

English National Opera

The Coliseum, 24 September 2009 3 stars

RigolettoOriginally staged in 1982, Jonathan Miller's Rigoletto has become something of a theatrical grand dame. Appearing currently in its twelfth revival, re-directed by Miller himself, it is testimony to the production's elegant effectiveness that it is still playing to a full house, if the audience at ENO's first night is anything to go by.

Watching such a well-established production naturally brings with it very different expectations to those accompanying a premiere. Denied the thrill of innovation (and with it the risk of the unexpected), instead we surely demand the compensation of a slick and musically satisfying whole. While dramatically the production has held up well, giving few hints as to its age, in this revival its impact was let down more than once by music-making of distinctly mixed quality.

Taking the opera's central fixation on 'vendetta' as his cue, Miller relocates the action from the ducal court of sixteenth century Mantua to the Mafia world of Little Italy in 1950's New York. The evident parallels between the two contexts, with their shared foundations in honour-culture and systemic violence smoothes-over the transposition across four centuries, and requires little of the suspension of disbelief traditionally demanded by such a shift. The Duke of the original thus becomes the 'Duke' – a young slick-haired Mafia boss complete with his family of followers, among them the Shakespearean fool and general dogsbody, Rigoletto.

Built around Patrick Robertson and Rosemary Vercoe's two vast stage-sets, the production is still looking fresh, especially the wonderfully moody Hopper-inspired dive bar where the action reaches its bloody climax, and the clean lines of the Art Deco hotel ballroom which hosts both the party of Act I and the morning-after confrontation between Rigoletto and his daughter's abductors in Act III. The return to this set does much to articulate the mirror-effect of these scenes as two fathers – first Monterone and then Rigoletto – bewail the corruption of their child. The essential shift in the character of Rigoletto from mocking savant to brutalised victim is heightened in this return to the 'public' arena of power, which while it celebrated the displays of Rigoletto the jester, can never welcome the intensely private figure of Rigoletto the father.

RigolettoOne of the few indications of the production's age was to be found at the very start of the evening. I can't remember the last time I saw an overture played 'straight' with the curtain rising only at the official opening of Act I, and not a moment before. I was reminded just how effective such a traditional practice can be, focusing both the ear and the mind in the rather more actively imaginative process of creating atmosphere, especially in a work like Rigoletto in which the moods of the overture and first scene are so contrasting.

 In terms of its musical substance however the overture set the tone in rather less satisfying fashion. Conductor Stephen Lord, musical director of the Opera Theatre of St Louis, was making both his UK and ENO debuts, and despite some moments of thrilling emotional abandon (generally manifest in some rather speedy tempi) he largely failed to live up to his CV. The orchestra – increasingly such a powerfully unified force under Edward Gardner – sounded distinctly under-rehearsed in places, a suggestion heightened by the consistent rocking of ensemble between stage and pit that continued throughout the opera. Even within orchestra sections (notably the flutes) ensemble was an issue, and moments of dubious intonation marred the gorgeous line for solo oboe in Gilda's Act III aria.

Despite such issues however there was much to delight in the evening's vocal performances. With many of the singers making role or ENO debuts there was a sense of anticipation among the audience which Michael Fabiano's young Duke more than merited. Aided by his physical aptitude for the role of the young rake he proved himself a more than capable actor in his two seduction scenes, balancing a very natural swagger with some calculated soul-baring to devastating effect. It was vocally however that he really came into his own, demonstrating the makings of a gloriously meaty and powerful Romantic tenor, which swooned its way through 'Bella figlia dell'amore' with enough conviction to melt even the cynical Maddalena.

Madeleine Shaw made much of this small role, bringing to it a rounded fullness of tone that was lacking in Katherine Whyte's Gilda. This Canadian soprano is another newcomer to ENO, and although possessed of a sweet crystalline quality in her upper register is not as yet quite equal to the space of the Coliseum or to the dramatic demands of the opera rather than recital stage. Overpowered on several occasions by both Fabiano and Anthony Michaels-Moore as Rigoletto, she nevertheless grew in presence as the opera progressed, and early intonation issues gave way to a more secure and grounded vocal production.

Impressive though both Fabiano and Brindley Sherratt (as hitman Sparafucile) were, the evening belonged unequivocally to veteran Michaels-Moore. Eschewing the outward contortions so often brought to the role, his Rigoletto was a much more inward creature, beautifully produced and only occasionally employing the full force of his emotive Verdi baritone to potent effect. His is a more than welcome return to ENO after an absence of almost a decade.

Psychologically Rigoletto is as complex a work as any Verdi produced, rivalling Otello for the sheer intensity of emotion packed into a single role. The joy of such a naturalistic contemporary reading of the drama as Miller posits is surely the opportunity it brings for equally naturalistic and nuanced acting, jettisoning the melodrama of more traditional productions along with their cloaks and masks. While this may have been Miller's intention (and did work well in the scene between the Duke and Maddalena thanks to some splendid acting from both Fabiano and Shaw) there were several awkward moments where naturalism was abandoned in favour of some rather old-school park-and-bark delivery. Katherine Whyte as Gilda was the prime offender, seeming physically ill at ease in her role and retreating repeatedly to a series of stock gestures, until the final scenes where the change of clothes seemed at last to help provide focus. The result, particularly in the 'love' scene with the Duke, was some tonal unevenness which broke the flow of the otherwise compelling drama.

Although currently uneven in quality this revival is nevertheless a positive addition to London's Autumn/Winter opera season. As the run progresses the technical issues that currently undermine its impact should find themselves resolved, and the chance to see Michaels-Moore and Fabiano playing off one another is reason enough to pay one more visit to this operatic classic, which shows no sign of going out of style any time soon.

By Alexandra Coghlan

Photos: Chris Christodoulou


Related articles:

Opera review: Rigoletto at Covent Garden in 2009
Opera interview: Leo Nucci on Rigoletto
Opera interview: Anthony Michaels-Moore