Verdi: Rigoletto

Grange Park Opera

15 June 2011 3.5 stars

RigolettoThe box office success of this year’s Grange Park Opera festival was Rigoletto, sold out almost as soon as the schedule of performances was announced.   Those who know the venue can readily imagine the way Rigoletto might play in a smallish (500 seat) house: just big enough for some of the spectacle that Verdi’s 1851 masterpiece demands (it was first performed at La Fenice in Venice), but small and intimate enough for the human dimensions of the father/daughter tragedy to resonate and make a strong impact.   And by and large, Grange Park put on a slick and polished show, failing only – in my view – to go that extra Verdian mile, to reach the heights of which this opera is capable.   So, modified rapture from this critic at least.   But there were lots of good things to enjoy along the way.

The production by Daniel Slater, was first unveiled at Grange Park’s sister house, Nevill Holt in Leicestershire two years ago.   In a nod to the now iconic Jonathan Miller staging (incredibly now nearly thirty years old), the action is updated to Los Angeles in an LAPD environment in what appears to be the late 1940s or early 1950s, judging by the costumes and accoutrements.   At times the stage looks and feels a little bit West Side Story- like.   The Duke of Mantua is clearly a senior police officer, it is not entirely clear who Rigoletto – or what his function – is, but the court are all police officers and hangers-on, and the ladies of the chorus are ‘hookers’, as the programme book tells us.   Police community/society at large: it sort of establishes a dynamic in which the Rigoletto story can be told, but I cannot help feeling that the period interpretations that I have seen over the years offer much richer and more subtle glimpses of the tensions within society that Verdi and Piave explore to such great effect.

And the updating is often a little bit tame and lame.   The opening act, with its disjointed band music and gradual coalescence into a huge musical crescendo, should be exciting, thrilling even: directors need not employ the full-frontal nudity that David McVicar does in the current ROH production of Rigoletto, but Slater’s LAPD station party is a decidedly lacklustre affair, looking more like a student prom than a decadent orgy.   Le Roi s’amuse and its central character Triboulet encouraged Verdi to be daring – this is the one quality that is lacking in this Rigoletto.   Except in one curious respect: Slater turns the wronged, anguished father Monterone into an orthodox Jew whose curse, first on the Duke and then on Rigoletto himself, unleashes the tragedy.   But why?   The costume, make-up, ringlets and skull cap give Andrew Greenan an imposing few moments as he rises to his al mondo, al mondo, a Dio, but the Jewish character makes no real sense, and the subsequent rough treatment of Monterone by the police squad has some odd resonances.

While I am at it, I should say that the costume for the Duke, lounge suit or shirt with waistcoat over office trousers, completely failed to distinguish him from his men.   So the character who ought to be set apart from everyone else, as he sings “Questa o quella” with such gay abandon, establishing his hedonistic nature, philosophy and star quality in the opening scene, failed in my view to come across as the character whom Verdi portrays so vividly and memorably.   In the role Marco Panuccio sang with style and a degree of panache, his accurate and middling-powerful tenor lacking only that cutting edge that truly memorable Dukes have, but the production gave him no real help.   He was however well-supported by his ‘henchmen’ Marullo, Ceprano and Borsa, dependably sung and characterized with the right degree of slight malice by Stuart Pendred, Giuseppe De’ Ligia and Gareth Morris respectively, all of whom made good individual impressions.

Rigoletto, notwithstanding all its incidental excitements and characterisations along the way, stands or falls by its quartet of principals who come to the fore from Bella figlia d’amore in the final act onwards.   The overall picture here was reasonably impressive.   As Rigoletto himself, Damiano Salerno made a strong impression, his deformity being not a jester’s hump but a livid strawberry coloured naevus on the left side of his face.   His baritone is nicely coloured and agile, his sense of musical attack excellent, and he grew into the role, characterizing it more strongly as the evening progressed.   In the crucial high baritone passages I thought Salerno slid into the note from below a shade disconcertingly at times, but his sense of musical line never let him down and he made a believable tragic hero.   His voice contrasted nicely with the true bass of Timothy Dawkins as Sparafucile, who proved as sinister and imposively menacing as he is supposed to be.   An impressive sing.

For me, the star of the evening was Laura Mitchell as Gilda, however.   She played the part at Nevill Holt in 2009 and by now has come to inhabit it, in a way that is totally convincing on stage.   I have heard “Caro nome” better sung technically, with sustained sotto voce expressiveness, but rarely with greater lyrical ardour and with such intensity and passion.   Mitchell manages to look the part of a tall, slightly gangly sixteen year old, and her stage movement is terrific – disconcertingly and frighteningly shattered by her first sexual encounter with the Duke (and bearing all the physical signs of violent rape) – she stumbles her way on to her final, selfless sacrifice.   The voice is well focused and encompasses Gilda’s range with ease: on this showing, Mitchell will be singing Gilda in some bigger houses very soon.

In the smaller, and under-characterised role of Maddalena, Carolyn Dobbin made an excellent impression.   She has the physique du role, looked seductive and projected her mezzo line with power and distinction.   And the production really came alive from the quartet and storm scene onwards: principals and orchestra managed to get some of the visceral excitement across that abounds in Verdi’s extraordinary score.   From then on, to the final tragic denouement, we were gripped by the power and force of Verdi’s inspiration, which came at a turning point in the history of Italian opera.

The English Chamber Orchestra were conducted by Toby Purser, who made a good impression.   Purser kept tempi brisk and flowing, got the rhythms and accents into the music in all the right places, and kept the balance between stage and pit well-judged at all times: he was considerate to his singers, and they followed his beat well.   The ECO played well but not brilliantly – perhaps the long Wagner evening the night before had got to them, but the orchestral sound was not always as taut and precise as vintage Verdi performances demand.   So what we had was a pleasing sound, with plump orchestral tutti, but not always the colour that the Rigoletto score demands.

Nevertheless, this Rigoletto is a slick and polished show, and if the performance I attended was a very slightly ‘off’ night (I was at the second night), the chances are good that everything will coalesce as the run progresses.   And what an opera it is!   As Verdi wrote to Piave, seeking to fire his imagination to have a go at the original libretto, “The subject is grand, immense, and there’s a character in it who is one of the greatest creations that the theatre of all countries and all times can boast”.   So even a Rigoletto that just fails to hit the mark is a Rigoletto worth seeing – and this production is definitely that.   See it if you can!

By Mike Reynolds

Photo: Alastair Muir