Bregenz Festival 2019 Review: Rigoletto

Philipp Stölzl’s Production of Verdi’s Famed Work Is A Masterpiece

By Eric Simpson

When it comes to presenting a unique experience, Austria’s Bregenz Festival already has a head start: their “floating” stage on Lake Constance is an astonishing setting for operatic performances, which take place immediately after a breathtaking sunset over the opposite shore.

The playing area of Bregenz’s stage extends to the lake itself (drowning seems to be the leading cause of death for operatic characters here), and since the offering only changes every two years, the productions tend to be elaborate, with impressively constructed sets and plenty of technical wizardry.

A Rare Feat

Yet even by local standards, the “Rigoletto” that opened just over a week ago is a rare feat of stagecraft. The new production directed by Philipp Stölzl takes the form of a clown’s head and two hands rising out of the lake, with his collar and cuffs serving as the actors’ stage. In his left hand he holds a helium-filled balloon that is actually registered with Austrian air traffic for its brief flights in Acts one and three. His right hand is fully animatronic, its fingers occasionally acting as a playing area for acrobats.

Stölzl’s concept for this production isn’t especially cerebral, but it is a powerful combination of emotional sensitivity and creative imagination; in his setting, the entire court of Mantua is a circus troupe, with the Duke himself as the ringmaster, Monterone as an illusionist, Sparafucile as a knife-throwing human skeleton, and so on down the line. Pure technical spectacle certainly is a major element in the staging, but the core of the production is its deep mining of the opera’s emotions and their translation into physical representation.

The most dynamic part of the staging is the head itself, which seems to float in mid-air, moving around above the lake, grinning, opening and closing its eyes. At 35 metric tons, the face could certainly have stepped out of a nightmare, with its faded clown makeup and peeling paint; but there’s something endearing and innocent about it, too, in its puppy-dog eyes and toothy grin, which makes it all the more wrenching when psychological abuse heaped on the title character manifests as physical abuse against his avatar.

In the first two acts, it is heart-melting to see the way “Rigoletto” lights up with joy every time his daughter appears; by the start of Act three he is an eyeless, noseless, toothless, grinning death’s head, the cascade of tears pouring from his eyes serving as the rain for the storm scene.

Emotional Charge

The festival’s superb cast gave emotionally charged performances of their own, starting with Yngve Søberg in the title role. He brought a gorgeous basso cantante voice to the part of Rigoletto, with a woody, firm resonance and powerful top. The boiling passion of his “Cortigiani, vil razza” was deeply moving; his vivid realization of the role gave the clear sense of someone beaten down and embittered by the constant cruelty of his peers, with only his daughter’s love to cherish.

Of all the leading roles, Gilda has the most unusual technical demands in this production: “Caro nome” is a show-stopping aria in any performance, but to deliver it 150 feet in the air in a helium balloon is a bravura feat. Ekaterina Sadovnikova approached the extra challenge with complete confidence, singing the aria with easy, consistent tone, and flowing through the tricky scales and coloratura passages seemingly without a care.

As the womanizing Duke of Mantua, Pavel Valuzhin showed off a bright, clear tenor with plenty of power, ringing with ease at the top of his range, albeit with a tendency to drift alarmingly sharp on sustained top notes. His finest work was his passionate rendition of Act two’s “Parmi veder le lagrime,” contrasting that intense, clarion brightness with warm sighs and shapely phrases.

In his dramatic portrayal, Valuzhin pursued his abusive behavior with disturbing relish, underscored by Stölzl’s visual additions: while Valuzhin sang “La donna è mobile,” dancers in many-breasted body suits hung above him from Rigoletto’s fingers, grotesque exaggerations of the Duke’s sexual obsession.

Tightly Wound

Miklós Sebestyén’s viscous bass-baritone was ideal for the hit-man Sparafucile, a dark instrument with a gooey, molasses texture. Katrin Wundsam doubled as the kindly chambermaid Giovanna and Sparafucile’s beguiling sister Maddalena, bringing a firm, amber mezzo-soprano and dark allure.

As Monterone, Kostas Smoriginas offered a cavernous bass-baritone that could command the stage with a single phrase, and Wolfgang Stefan Schwaiger showed a warm, flexible baritone as Marullo.

Presenting the opera in one sitting served as an apt reminder of how tightly wound it is, running just about two hours without breaks. In that time, Daniele Squeo never lost focus, leading the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in a gripping account of Verdi’s dynamic score. His crisp phrases and brisk pacing maintained a lively pulse in the music, and the chorus sang with a warm tone and buoyant energy.

There have surely been productions of “Rigoletto” that have more deeply probed the work’s disturbing psychology, but as a feat of creative imagination, combining technical achievement with emotional richness, this interpretation of the Verdi score is unique.

After three days of outstanding performances, it’s easy to see why the Bregenz Festival sells out every night. Bregenz offers beautiful, intelligent, engaging productions, first-rate singing, and an idyllic setting: few summer festivals can boast as much.


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