Rigoletto, opera by Giuseppe Verdi, based on the play Le roi s’amuse by Victor Hugo, director Jonathan Miller, revival director Elaine Taylor-Hall, conductor Sir Richard Armstrong, ENO, 2nd February 2017, reviewed by Leslie Jones
Guiseppe Verdi was unquestionably one of the more thought provoking composers of opera. Rigoletto, accordingly, contains some powerful, intertwining themes, notably that of revenge and the inexorable nature of fate in the form of Monterone’s curse, la maledizione. “The old man cursed me!”, as Rigoletto repeatedly and ruefully remarks. The doom-laden orchestral prelude to Act I demonstrates, yet again, Verdi’s debt to Wagner.
Love can be self-sacrificial, as in the case of Violetta Valéry in La Traviata (see “La Traviata (encore)”, Quarterly Review, January 22nd 2017). But it can also can be possessive, over-protective, paranoid and ultimately self-destructive. Witness the hunchback Rigoletto’s almost incestuous feelings for his daughter Gilda, who in this production is literally locked in a not so gilded cage and only allowed out under close supervision. But to no avail. Her very innocence and lack of street-smarts are her undoing.
The sets, notably the squalid dead-end street where Rigoletto broods in his tenement, are striking and effective. The location of Act III is a dilapidated riverside bar outside the city, reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s evocative painting ‘Nighthawks’. The ensuing scene has a distinctly voyeuristic dimension. Rigoletto’s intention is to show Gilda the true character of her lover, ostensibly a penniless student named Gualtier Maldè but in reality the ‘Duke’, a cynical misogynist and libertine. He seduces Maddalena, the assassin Sparafucile’s sister, before Gilda’s very eyes. “Women are liars [the ‘Duke’ contends], why should men care, women are cunning little demons…” And evidently disposable commodities, to be duped, or abducted and raped, if all else fails.
This is the 13th revival of Jonathan Miller’s production of 1982. Miller transposed the action from the 16th century court of the Duke of Mantua, a notorious womaniser, to New York in the 1950’s. He cleverly mapped the Renaissance court onto a 20th century criminal gang. For the Duke of Mantua, read the ‘Duke’, a mafia boss. For the court jester (Rigoletto), read barman. In the opening scene, at a hotel where a party is taking place, we behold heavies dressed in sharp suits à la Madmen and wearing sinister sunglasses reminiscent of the Matrix Reloaded. According to the ‘Duke’, “There is no point in love unless the man is free”. In this context, the Mafia institution of the ‘Goomar’ or Mistress comes immediately to mind.
All of the principal singers were technically accomplished. The tenor Joshua Guerrero, who sang the ‘Duke’, clearly understands the importance of legato in bel canto and he received several rounds of spontaneous applause, especially in the last act. Ditto Sydney Mancasola, who played Gilda, and who gave what was arguably the standout performance, because so heart felt. However, Nicholas Pallesen, as Rigoletto, did not entirely convince. Where was the pathos when he fruitlessly begged the gang to find his abducted daughter?
Some operas work when not performed in their original language. ENO’s 2011 production of Parsifal was a triumph. On this occasion, however, something was lacking, to wit, Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto (see also Quarterly Review, “Machinations in Mantua”, February 19th 2014). Sorry, but the aria Caro Nome sounds much better in Italian.
LESLIE JONES is the editor of Quarterly Review