ENDNOTES – Machinations in Mantua
Rigoletto, Giuseppe Verdi, ENO, 15th February 2014, evening performance: directed by Christopher Alden, orchestra conducted by Graeme Jenkins
Leslie Jones imbibes an intoxicating concoction at English National Opera
Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave originally set Rigoletto in the court of the decadent French King Francis 1, in accordance with Victor Hugo’s tale Le roi s’amuse. But the Austrian censor (or Director General for Public Order, to give him his proper title) strongly objected to any such depiction of monarchical rule. So the action had to be shifted to the 16th century court of the Duke of Mantua, another notorious womaniser.
Now, in director Christopher Alden’s new production (or newish, given that it was briefly performed in 2000 at Chicago’s Lyric Opera but subsequently deemed ‘unrevivable’), the action has been transposed yet again, this time to a Victorian gentleman’s club in the ‘modern Babylon’, replete with candelabra, flunkeys, hooray Henrys, leather armchairs, newspapers, rich carpets and other apposite paraphernalia.
Alden, an ardent exponent of ‘relevance’ and contemporary resonance in opera, is evidently taking a swipe at a somewhat easy target here, to wit, bourgeois sexual hypocrisy and the oppression of women – Sigmund Freud meets John Stuart Mill.
Thus, Rigoletto (the personage) encourages the Duke’s philandering and thereby draws down on himself the curse (la maledizione) upon which the action pivots. But he also exhibits a type of ‘whore and Madonna complex’, placing his daughter on a pedestal and trying, however ineffectually, to protect her purity (symbolised here by Gilda’s invariably white attire), virtually imprisoning her.
The three leads, namely baritone Quinn Kelsey as Rigoletto, tenor Barry Banks as the Duke and soprano Anna Christy as Gilda, have received high praise for their vocal performances ditto the rest of the cast. This reviewer, however, begs respectfully to differ. For one thing, the chorus at times sounds distinctly reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan. But the problem is arguably more serious and systemic than this. Something ineffable in Verdi, it seems, has been lost in translation. Just as most theatre lovers would patently prefer to have Shakespeare’s greatest speeches declaimed in his mother tongue rather than, say, in French (although French translations of all his foremost tragedies are readily available) so most genuine opera lovers, given the choice, would doubtless prefer to hear Verdi’s quartet Bella figlia dell’amore or the aria La Donna è mobile sung in Italian rather than in English. By virtue of the vagaries of language, Wagner, in contrast to Verdi or Puccini, seems to lose much less in translation, at least judging from ENO’s recent, triumphant production of Parsifal.
Singing aside, the various liberties that director Christopher Alden has taken with Piave and Verdi’s original conception have engendered some deservedly critical commentary. Writing in the Daily Express, William Hartston referred scathingly to the setting of a gentleman’s club, in which all the action (including an orgy, a hanging and the kidnapping of women) takes place. “The only thing wrong with this [he opined] is that it is nonsense. The opera is not set in a gentleman’s club: its various scenes take place in a palace in Mantua, in Rigoletto’s humble dwelling and in the assassin Sparafucile’s windswept shack”. And what precisely would be the function, anyway, of a court jester in a gentleman’s club?
Immediately after the climactic moment when Rigoletto, bent on revenge, realises that by dint of the curse, he has not brought about the death of the Duke but that of his own beloved daughter, the curtain is drawn and the onstage lighting is simultaneously extinguished. We were reminded of the final, memorable scene of the HBO drama series The Sopranos, another Freudian take on sexual double standards and misogyny, in which the demise of priapic patriarch Tony Soprano is suggested by a sudden ominous silence (preceded by audible gunshots in one version) and a totally blank screen.
Leslie Jones, posted on 19th February 2014
Leslie Jones is Deputy editor of Quarterly Review