“Bleakness” would be best used to describe the ambience of this by now well known Royal Opera House revival: David McVicar’s “Rigoletto”. Originally mounted in 2001, it was first publicized as an audacious, controversial exposé of sixteenth-century Mantuan aristocracy; the kind of risky spectacle of which Verdi – plagued chronically by problems with his censors – could have only dreamed.
Offering frequent depictions of the orgiastic rites enjoyed by both the Duke of Mantua and his vast carnal entourage, its advertisers were once proud to boast – or maybe warn – that in Act one a fully naked man appears onstage. It’s all the more amusing therefore to cast eyes on it and gather the impression that it has the musky stench of a theatrical conservatism; the same old, familiar smell as that of aged wood that lingers in the theatre’s wings and pinches the performers’ noses as they wait to enter.
Minimalism Without Aim
There is a comfort in this continuity. But this particular production of McVicar’s lacks both fine details and the evidence of an inquisitive imagination. While in the past McVicar has exploited luxury to stage glittering tapestries of variegating colors and distinctive objects, this “Rigoletto” almost falls into the “minimalist” category. The Duke of Mantua – renowned for sleazy antics that take place in lavish and unending decadence – lives in a palace represented by a concrete slanted wall. Conveniently the concrete slanted wall rotates to show us its reverse: the home of anti-hero Rigoletto, the court jester. Its interior, two stories high, is mostly vacuous and sports only one hue: the color of tree bark.
Most of the characters, wearing dark green or brown attire, camouflage against this backdrop. The monotony is hardly accidental. Victor Hugo’s play “Le Roi s’amuse,” the basis for this opera, is a Dickensian, murky affair that only makes “Les Misérables” look less wretched. Yet through its stubborn and unchanging background this production never polarizes the contrasting statuses of Rigoletto and the Duke – and we are never made to understand the latter lives in opulence and splendor. All we see is characters engaging in a host of different sex acts both outside and through the palace windows; seemingly for want of something else to do. As a characteristic tool it’s insufficient – telling us what we’ll find out as soon as the Duke sings “La Donna è Mobile”. In modern times, it translates into what the television series “Game of Thrones” might look like if producers lacked most of the budget.
Immersive & Complex
For all its sleep-inducing spectacle there is nevertheless a saving grace. Returning to the title role, Dimitri Platanias layers this iconic character with something other baritones have easily omitted. His Rigoletto is not only cursed and publicly, horrifically derided; he’s a long-suffering invalid. It’s no comedic hunchback. Platanias not only uses his two canes to founder on the stage throughout the whole performance, he equips his voice with its own fragile stagger: a pulsating vibrato. It is the grouchy instrument of a hefty, portentous low baritone; yet even at the character’s most fearsome moments – when ordering the Duke’s imminent murder, for example – one can sometimes hear the breathiness characteristic of a physically impaired old man for whom a long walk is a struggle.
His is a Rigoletto who can damn the courtiers with weighty, declamatory insults in his attack, “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” – and at the same time curse the heavens for endowing him with no fate but to make the public laugh with a lengthy plaintive diminuendo. It isn’t a superlative exploration of the scale of gradations Rigoletto could canvass – either interpretatively or dynamics-wise. His lament at the snatching of his daughter is more an outraged condemnation than a father’s abrupt panic. And yet Platanias convinces us that Rigoletto – a Verdian anti-hero that we customarily associate with pompous, clichéd and bombastic singing – is a vulnerable and doting father.
Some Struggling Leads
Bombasticity, however, makes its presence known elsewhere: throughout Michael Fabiano’s characterization of the Duke. Few opera characters are as infuriatingly a villain stereotype as he is. The Duke’s vocal lines ought to be sung with grandeur and blunt self-importance. However, Michael Fabiano takes it to another level: the kind in which interpretation is so thick that it cuts through and frays the singing. In his entrance of “Questa o quella” he stumbled from one phrase to another – sometimes lengthening the ends of lines, sometimes cutting them short. There is no doubt that his – a large voice potent through the middle register – is the bold instrument required to exude this self-adoring feckless creature. However, his own manipulation of the instrument is somewhat unstable. It rises to enormous, overly emphatic crescendi – or else applies so much force to the high notes that many in the speedy “Addio, addio” duet become falsetto squeaks. By the time he reached “La donna è mobile”, he hurled his lines so hurriedly that certain sections sounded almost purposely off-key.
Sofia Fomina’s Gilda is vocally a young girl incarnate. Possessing a silvery timbre that doesn’t allow too much pulsation in the highest register, it coaxes one to think the instrument was crafted for this role. At the beginning of “Caro nome” her calling of the Duke’s alleged name, “Gualtier Maldè”, effuses the complete arc of dynamics as her voice first ascends in excitement and then softens in tenderness.
That said she seemed to struggle with some of the aria’s dotted and slurred individual notes – the kind that challenge a soprano’s gift for treasuring a word or syllable. On this evening most of these lines of affection were rushed through. When she got to Gilda’s duet with her father, “Tutte le feste”, certain high notes, such as when Gilda sings of how the Duke’s eyes spoke to her when she first saw him – “dagli occhi il cor parlò” – were lost at the expense of overly dramatic, unconvincing emphasis.
The cavilous Count Monterone, sung by James Rutherford, has a harsh and trenchant, almost cutting bass as the barbaric character who curses Rigoletto but lets phrases quickly sink before their time and is almost at loss to reach the lowest notes. Frightening the audience with acrid and ominous “extremely” bass notes is Andrea Mastroni, whose performance of the murderer Sparafucile dips this chestnut-colored earthy spectacle in tar. Nadia Krasteva paints her role of lethal mistress Maddalena with a thick vibrato over her low tones that adequately compliments portentous motifs on the lower strings.
At the baton conductor Alexander Joel regulates traditional Verdi tempi and rhythms with barely any experimental rubato or unprecedented choices. While the orchestra never disintegrated in this instance, brass met with muffledness more than a few times and a clan of unadventurous obedient strings barely possessed Romanticism. Oftentimes, at Joel’s command, their sequences came out as very straight lines on a graph; sometimes almost a synthesized variety. But altogether the ensemble mostly yielded to an adroit collectivity that didn’t look to trip the singers up.
With much of Verdi’s radiance missing both musically and optically, it’s difficult for the spectators not to pine for greater riches – a better designed set, vocally steady Duke of Mantua, and many better performed passages from almost every member of the cast. But the production leaves a grisly imprint – if one seeks to attend “Rigoletto” to see more Victor Hugo than Verdi.