Bregenz Festival 2021 Review: Rigoletto
Vladimir Stoyanov Leads a Solid Though Uneven Cast in a Mixed Bag ProductionBy Mauricio Villa
The Bregenzer Festspiele, the annual open-air summer opera festival which takes place in Bregenz, Austria, revived its spectacular production of “Rigoletto” this July, a performance which originally premiered in the summer of 2019. After being closed for one season due to the pandemic, the festival has reopened, now requiring attendants to provide proof of negative COVID tests or vaccine certificates to enter their facilities. Social distancing was not enforced and masks were not mandatory for neither the audience nor the performers onstage, giving all a welcome sense of a return to normalcy.
Despite being the site of several musical events, it is the opera, taking place upon a floating stage in Lake Constance, that draws the attention of 7,000 people every performance.
A one-of-a-kind set
This production of “Rigoletto” by Philipp Stölzl integrates the set so much that it becomes another character in its own right. It resembles a huge clown rising from the waters of the lake, his head and hands the only visible parts above the waves. The gargantuan clown’s neck collar and wrist cuffs are floating platforms, and it is here that the action of the opera takes place. The clown’s head and right hand are fully articulated, providing it with a full range of motion. This heightens the emotional impact of the performance, as the head looks down upon the characters on stage or up at the sky, opens and closes its mouth and eyes, and inexorably disintegrates over the course of the opera, reduced to a giant skull by the climax. The staging is a multidisciplinary show, with a wired aerial company and dozens of stunt performers who execute spectacular gymnastics and circus routines throughout the performance. The opera is a non-stop frenzied continuum of action. It is a visually stunning show that entertains all kinds of audiences, making the two unbroken hours of opera accessible to everyone.
Herein lies the essential issue with this performance. “Rigoletto” is an intimate tragedy: it is a tale of overprotection, sexual harassment, hate, love, vengeance and death. The deepness of Verdi and Piave’s opera is sadly diluted by the spectacle of this sensationalist, though wildly entertaining, interpretation. There are great dramatic effects, like the clown’s collar breaking apart into floating pieces because of Monterone’s curse; the physical water that falls during the storm in Act three, raining down from the clown’s forehead and right hand onto the stage; and Gilda hanging in the air while still singing for the final scene. But it is especially during the ensemble scenes where not only the dramatism but even the story become confusing.
There is so much movement throughout the first scene of Act one that it is impossible to identify the main characters. It happens again in the first scenes of Acts two and three. There is so much happening during the famous quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore,” including Rigoletto and Gilda moving up to the gaping hole in the gigantic skeletal clown’s face, while a knife-throwing circus act takes place with Maddalena, that it is impossible to understand without prior knowledge of the opera that Rigoletto and Gilda are actually looking through a hole in a wall to see the philandering Duke inside Sparafucil’s tavern. Turning Gilda’s kidnapping into a high-kicking martial arts sequence where a karate-adept Gilda battles her captors, or Rigoletto with bizarrely large hands punching the courtly characters during the ‘vendetta’ sequence, does not work at all. It transforms two of the most integral dramatic moments of the opera into cartoon-like farces, losing all dramatic strength in the process.
As the opera is performed in nature, in an open-air environment, the singers, chorus and orchestra are amplified with microphones, and the orchestra and chorus perform in a chamber outside the stage. The great distance between the stage and the audience makes it possible to easily switch between stunt doubles and the main cast, the doubles mouthing the words and mimicking the actions of the soloists, who are now singing offstage. The treatment of the sound is excellent and the voices sound natural, with a realistic approach to the volume being used. When the soloists sing with the choir and orchestra in forte, the volume of the soloists’ voices is not artificially amplified to have them sound louder than the orchestra and choir. There is a wise use of the speakers, which broadcasts the performers’ voices from the onstage location where they are singing, giving a truthful sense of stage placement, rather than the generally unnatural sound usually heard in musical theatre. But the extreme and unpredictable conditions of an open-air performance on a lake, like wind or humidity, demand new sound adjustments every performance, and the soloist voices, orchestra and chorus were not clear and balanced until 20 minutes after the performance began.
The efforts made by the whole cast to sing in such extreme conditions are admirable. Hot, cold, rain–the performances take place even in the rain unless there is a storm–or summer humidity: the show goes on! The staging demands running, jumping, climbing sets, and being suspended while singing. The opera is performed with no intervals and singers cannot go to dressing rooms to rest between scenes, as they would expect to do on land. Instead, they must stay on the sets out on the lake. As they move around the vast stage, they do not always have a clear orchestral sound and pitch problems can appear. Therefore, I am unable to write about pitch mistakes or voice volume.
A Mixed Bag
The Bulgarian Verdi specialist Vladimir Stoyanov reprised the title role of Rigoletto, after having premiered this production in 2019. He has therefore not only performed this role more than 100 times already but knows intimately the extreme challenges of this particular production. Rigoletto sings about 80 percent of the opera: he has two arias, three duets, and many ensemble numbers. If we consider that in this production Rigoletto enters humming the melody of his previous duet with Gilda and then stays on stage during the soprano’s aria in the first act, his presence is constantly onstage with little time to rest. But Stoyanov is no stranger to the production and knows how to pace himself so that he remains able to run, jump or climb a staircase, all the while keeping the fiato intact. He proved he could do this in the “Ah la maledizione” that closes Act one, after repeatedly running back and forth across the stage. Showing no difficulties with the conditions that make the role hard in this ambitious production, he delivered a splendid vocal performance and insightful characterization of the role.
Stoyanov has no problem with the several high notes interpolated by tradition: high G in “Pari siamo” and “cortigianni,’”A flat at the end of the “vendetta” sequence, and A natural for the final “maledizione.” But you need much more than secure high notes to succeed in this role. Stoyanov has a dark timbre and a great ability to color his voice to reflect the different emotional states of the protagonist, such as humiliated, pitiful, worried, enraged, and hateful. He has delicate legato phrasing which enables him to sing long lines in mezza voce around the passagio–a dangerous zone to soften the sound–like in the sections ‘”Oh veglia donna” in Act one or “Piangi fanciulla” in Act two. The first big moment of the opera was Rigoletto’s first aria, “Pari siamo.” It is the first time that the stage is almost completely empty, with only Rigoletto kneeling on a platform, looking at his reflection in the lake. Every phrase is emotionally distinct under Stoyanov’s control, from the anger and fury of “Odio a voi cortiggiani,” through the mocking “Questo padrone mio,” to the sweetness of the redemptive “Ma un altr’uomo qui mi cangio.” His first long duet with Gilda was a display of legato mezza voce lines climbing constantly to F, expressing his sadness and worry for his daughter.
During his entrance in Act two, he delivered a cynical “la ra…la ra…” but the staging of cartoon-like circus characters around him did not help him in this dramatic moment at all. Rigoletto’s second aria, “Cortiggiani, vil razza dannata,” gave the baritone another big chance to portray a long dramatic arc from fury and hate to begging and humiliation. He showed all the vivid, emotional depths of the old, deformed father as he sang the last verse kneeling over the fallen red nose of the monstrous wooden clown. He sang in true legato mezza voce for the second duet with Gilda, a contrast to the anger of “Si temenda vendetta.” His stamina and intricate knowledge of this production kept his voice fresh for the final duet with Gilda and the tremendous final ‘Maledizione,’ rising to a stratospheric high A natural. He was undoubtedly the show’s true protagonist.
The Chinese lyric tenor Long Long sang the Duke of Mantua. He has a dark central and lower register, but his timbre changes drastically over the passagio–around E flat and F–where his voice sounds guttural and strained, resulting in an unflattering timbre. Nevertheless, even if he gives the feeling that his voice might break at any moment, the truth is that he produced all the high notes secure and sustained. The role is not high, but written mostly over the passagio, a hard zone for a tenor to sing for the whole night. But tradition has imposed lots of extra high notes, up to D flat in the duet “Addio, addio,” and Long Long sang all the expected extra high notes securely. He began his performance with a cold “Questa o quella,” and he remained cold during his subsequent duet with Contessa di Ceprano.
He appeared inexpressive in his duet with Gilda, “É il sol dell’anima,” which turned out to be a technically well-sung piece with no use of dynamics. The same can be said of his second act aria “Ella mi fu rapita’ and cabaletta.” They were technically correct but with no vocal risks taken, even if he interpolated a long-sustained B natural on the bridge of the cabaletta. But everything changed in the third act, where the tenor gave an amusing interpretation of the famous “La donna é mobile” and began using exquisite diminuendo and mezza voce in the quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore,” singing high A flats and B flats in true piano and becoming incredibly expressive. The tenor’s Italian diction is not clear, especially the “t” and “r,” and that blurred his performance. The use of microphones might improve the volume and the timbre, but the voice is also completely exposed and every single mistake is laid bare. Long Long’s attack on the lines was precise and clear, with no use of portamenti or appogiature.
Finding Her Way
The Russian lyric soprano Ekaterina Sadovnikova sang the role of Gilda. The soprano has a juvenile but dark lower and middle timbre. She possesses a remarkable vibrato that increases in her higher register. On this evening, Sadovnikova ran into a number of issues as her voice sounded heavy and her staccato notes in her first duet with Rigoletto were not precise and slightly behind the tempo. The tessitura, which goes constantly to high B flat and high C, also seemed uncomfortable for the soprano, as she did not exhibit a dynamic interpretation of the score and constantly sang forte. Her duet with the Duke, “E il sol dell’anima,” however, did have contrasting dynamics. However, the final section “Addio, addio,” which has B flats and an optional D flat, sounded strident.
Gilda’s famous aria “Caro Nome,” which gives the soprano a chance to showcase the lighter and innocent side of Gilda, here was sung too heavy. Sadovnikova’s fiato and breath support made her sing the whole aria forte, losing all sense of “dolcissimo,” marked on Verdi’s score. Her scales were unpolished and slow, but her trills were impeccable. She opted to sing the written cadenza going up to a high C sharp.
It was not until the second scene of Act two that Sadovnikova finally sounded comfortable and the duet “Tutte le feste al tempio” was the highlight of her performance. She was expressive and colored the long lines with subtle dynamics and she even delivered an unexpected, amazingly bright E flat at the end of “Si vendetta.” In her final duet with Rigoletto in Act three, Sadovnikova tried to sing the several B flats pianissimo, but she could only reach mezza-voce.
Hungarian bass Levente Páll portrayed the role of the murderer Sparafucile. His timbre is metallic and dark, but his voice is far too lyrical for a role intended for a bass profondo, so the final low F in his duet with Rigoletto, “Signor…,” was small and colorless, as was the low G flat in “Buona notte” in Act three. Katrin Wundsam sang both Giovanna and Maddalena. She has a deep, dark voice that resembles a contra-alto and it suited the roles perfectly.
Julia Jones conducted the Wiener Symphoniker and the Praguer Philharmonischer Chor/Bregenzer Festspielchor. As the sound is completely controlled by the sound engineers, I cannot say too much about it, except that it was balanced and clear. Jones chooses traditional tempi, taking no risks, but managed to obtain all the dramatism from the orchestra that this opera required. She did a splendid job conducting the singers on the stage through screens, and they were perfectly on time.
The Bregenzer Festspiele’s production of “Rigoletto” is a tremendously amusing, big show, with a vibrant set that has its own personality, but lacks intimacy and dramatism. It can often be confusing, especially when the full cast, including extras, are onstage. However, Vladimir Stoyanov was the clear protagonist of both the opera and the night. He sang impeccably and with emotion and fought bravely against and triumphed over the unpredictable, extreme conditions of the staging in an open-air theatre on a lake in the summer. A smooth-sounding tenor as the Duke and a soprano almost too-lyrical for the tessitura of Gilda rounded out the lead cast, who gave it their all on a stage unlike any in the world with its own host of challenges for the performers. This performance of “Rigoletto” is a must for people who want to get into opera for the first time, and even for those who have never considered watching opera before.