Just hours after the announcement that Dame Joan Sutherland had passed away, Elaine Padmore took to the Covent Garden stage to dedicate this performance of Rigoletto to her memory. It was here that she had debuted as Gilda in 1957, and it was a fitting testimony that Patrizia Ciofi, as Gilda, here turned in what was possibly the finest performance of the evening.
She and the other principals were all veterans of David McVicar's production (revived here by Leah Hausman), the new element coming from Dan Ettinger in the pit. The Isreali-born Music Director of the Mannheim Opera House stamped his authority on the performance early on, bringing a raw dramatic intensity to the brass chords of the Prelude, matched by the slowly revolving, rugged structure that protrudes askance from the stage at the centre of Michael Vale's set.
As we were plunged deep into the lurid festivities that open Act One, I couldn't help wondering whether the portrayal of a society in such a state of decay doesn't remove some of the productive dramatic tension between the Duke's behaviour and the façade of nobility in Verdi's carefully chosen setting. In his booklet essay, Christopher Wintle mentions Pierluigi Petrobelli's point that the opening scene, with its stage musics of various levels of stately formality, echoes the finale of Don Giovanni — an opera where delineation of class and associated senses of privilege and entitlement are of central importance. The parallel between Michael Druiett's dramatically stiff Monterone and Mozart's Commendatore certainly seemed clear here, even if it jarred somewhat against the naturalistic raunchiness aimed at throughout the rest of the scene. Yet, the explicit orgy and the glut of nudity seem a somewhat obvious visual corollary of the Duke's carnal desires which, like his gloriously urbane cantilena, should surely be similarly concealed under a veneer of respectability. With sex on tap, one is also tempted to ask, would anyone even have need for a jester?
These questions would be more serious were McVicar's theatrical flair not so convincing. Within this context, too, it is the grossly pronounced nature of Rigoletto's deformity itself that becomes the primary source of sadistic amusement as much as any verbal dexterity (admittedly, Piave's libretto doesn't give him many great lines in this regard). Dmitri Hvorostovsky first took up the title role in this production some five years ago and again turns in a touching and often beautifully sung performance. While the glamorous baritone is physically persuasive with hump and uneven walking sticks, the voice still sounds rather too smooth and suave than is ideal for the role. He deals with the dramatic challenges head-on, however, and is not afraid to rough up the vocal velvet.
As his daughter, Ciofi was extremely impressive throughout. Although slightly reliant on the stock hand gestures of the condemned soprano, her singing was consistently of the highest quality. Sweet and mostly secure in the coloratura, whilst retaining a timbre suitably redolent of burgeoning maturity, this was an excellent performance. As her seducer, Wookyung Kim certainly has the notes and the vocal elegance, but he is not a natural actor. His big numbers were impressive vocally, but he was less convincing in the ensembles (including his big act-one duet with Gilda), and his lack of dangerous charisma was particularly noticeable in the context of McVicar's production. Raymond Aceto was a fine, darkly threatening Sparafucile, but while Daniela Innamorati made a voluptuous Maddalena, her knee-flashing game with the Duke during the Quartet was a little contrived.
The conducting, after a fine dramatic start, had many excellent things. Ettinger is clearly a man of the theatre, and Verdi's dramatic effects were given their full, thrilling due. In the more formal numbers, such as the opera's several pulsating duets, tempos were on the swift side, the accompaniments finely graded. Textures here were sometimes taken down to a minimum, creating a feeling of classical economy which contrasted effectively with the dramatic impulse favoured elsewhere. Yet, such an approach, while bringing several individual moments of revelation, did sometimes work to the detriment of momentum on a larger scale. While there was plenty of excitement in 'Cortigiani, vil razza dannata', for example, I missed a sense of cumulative weight—dramatic rather than sonic—as Ettinger accommodated Hvorostovsky, and the lingering rubato applied during the faster numbers could sound artificial. This is exciting conducting, though, and brings some outstandingly virtuosic playing from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in a revival that is well worth catching.
By Hugo Shirley
Photos © The Royal Opera/Johan Persson