DVD Review: The Bregenz Festival’s ‘Rigoletto’
Vladimir Stoyanov & Mélissa Petit Headline Fascinating Production Perfect for All AudiencesBy Mauricio Villa
(Credit: Anja Koehler)
The Bregenz Summer Opera Festival was founded in 1946, just one year after the end of the second World War. It offers a great variety of musical events in four different venues, but it is in the “Seebühne” or floating stage, set in a platform over the Costanze lake where the big opera performances take place in summer. This is case with this recording of “Rigoletto,” which was filmed when this production debuted during the summer of 2019.
For those unfamiliar with the Festival, Opera or musical productions on the floating stage generally tend to come from the popular operatic repertoire, but often are extravagantly original and innovative productions/ stagings, frequently using the waters of the lake as an extension of the stage. The audience is set on a 7,000 seat open-air amphitheatre, Therefore you can get an idea of the dimensions of the place, which can be seen as a positive as well as counterproductive for Opera performances.
But when you count with the inspired and intelligent production of Philipp Stölzl and the presence of the great Bulgarian bariton Vladimir Stoyanov, one of the greatest Rigoletto interpreters nowadays, this DVD recording becomes indispensable for Verdi and opera lovers in general.
The Right Approach
But Stölz, who designed the sets too, created a huge “Rigoletto” made of wood which is sunk in the lake, only his hands and head visible. The neck collar and wrist cuffs conform floating platforms for the characters to move around.
But the set is incredibly mobile: the huge Rigoletto head moves in every direction gazing a the action, its eyes and mouth are mobile too and characters climb to the top of its head, eyes, or enter and exit through its mouth. It sometimes goes under water leaving only the eyes and the top of the head visible.
The main platform – the one which represents Rigoletto’s collar – splits, opens and creates separate islands united by bridges. The big Rigoletto face disintegrates during the performance, losing its eyes, nose and several teeth, and ultimately resembling a skull. During the storm scene, great cascades of water come out of the Rigoletto’s empty eyes and from the four fingers of the right hand under which Gilda is singing.
The right hand is completely mobile, it rotates, all its fingers move, representing the real movement of a hand. The left hand holds an inflatable balloon where Gilda sings her aria “Caro nome” while sitting over the edge as the balloon elevates high ino the air.
Melissa Petit, who sings Gilda, not only has to sing her aria several feet in the air, but she flies hanging from a cable from the balloon to the big Rigoletto head; she also hangs from the right hand on several occasions, sometimes swinging. She is the singer who is faced with the most audacious physical challenges.
The action never stops, and with the magnificent contribution of the “Wired theatre” there are always actors flying, climbing the sets, or thrown into the air.
In fact the overture begins with Rigoletto (another actor) walking in the air from the audience towards the stage. He is carrying a balloon (a symbol quite present during the whole opera) that flies away. He starts to spin around and falls into the lake, anticipating the tragedy that is going to happen.
The entire production has a circus-like atmosphere, with most characters and chorus dressed as circus performers and the Duke of Mantua as a tamer usually surrounded by monkey-like characters. Rigoletto is dressed as a clown and Gilda as a porcelain doll with curly blond hair, a bright blue dress, and a big pink ribbon on her waist.
Stölz manages to handle this intimate tragedy and turn it into a huge, exhilarating, and dramatic theatre experience.
Carrying the Weight
The Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov carries the weight of the title role. He debuted this part in 2009 and has surpassed the 100-performance milestone with this rol and was even honored with the title of “Cavalieri di Verdi” by Parma’s “Club 27.” In essence, he is a valued Verdi expert, something that is very clear in this performance.
He has a dark round timbre, long legato lines, secure high notes and the ability to color his voice with sarcasm, love, regret, vengeance, and with the torment of losing your only child in his arms. From the moment he steps into the stage, you see Rigoletto and not a singer pretending to be. He has no hunchback in this production, but Stoyanov represents the physical deformity of this character by the way he walks and his posture. His vocal emission seems so easy and effortless that you really focus on his performance and forget that he is singing one of the most demanding scores written for a baritone.
His interpretation is so truthful that he does not overreact during the first scene of Act one when he behaves cruelly, always maintaining a fluid vocal line rather the histrionic effects that we are accustomed to hear due to tradition.
His first aria “ Pari siamo” seems a deep reflection of Rigoletto’s situation where he goes from fear, anger, regret, and hate in a sublime vocal line, culminating with the traditional interpolated high G which he releases seamlessly and powerfully.
His first duet with Gilda “Figlia! Mio padre!” is a showcase of long legato lines, diminuendos, mezza voce, the baritone always comfortably navigating a challenging tessitura that rises to high F constantly and G flats and G naturals frequently. He closes the act with a pathetic sorrowful cry of “La maledizione.”
His entrance in Act two, “La ra, la ra…,” is wisely colored with pain and sarcasm, until he burst out in anger in “Ella qui dunque” and then his big moment aria “Cortigiani…!” begins. The emotional arc of this piece is incredible, starting with fury and anger before finishing with begging and praying. Stoyanov fulfills every line of the aria with the perfect emotion and vocal charisma, giving two piercing high Gs before showcasing some silky legato and sfumature for the last part of the aria.
He keeps this high level of emotion while comforting his daughter Gilda in their duet “Piangi, piangi” and through his final outburst of anger and vengeance for “Si, vendetta” coronated, as tradition requires, with a splendid high A flat.
The third act might be the most comfortable one for baritones singing this role, as they only have to sing the Quartet, a few spare lines, and the final duo with Gilda. But tradition has imposed lots of interpolated high notes for the baritone: several high F sharps, and even an A natural to culminate the last “La maledizione.” Stoyanov proves his mastery and utter knowledge of the role by maintaining the voice fresh until the very end with no signs of fatigue; he bravely handles all the high notes (A natural included) and giving himself over completely in his last duet with Gilda with his “V’ho ingannato” full of lament, pathos, and despair.
New & Experienced
Stephen Costello portrays the libertine Duke of Mantua. He’s been singing this role since his career began in 2007 and it has been the vehicle for many of Costello’s memorable appearances at several opera houses around the world including the Metropolitan Opera House, Houston Grand Opera or Teatro Real.
This young lyric tenor has an ideal voice of the role, as he possesses a dark timbre with sparkling high notes, providing the dignity, nobility and power that this character holds but always accomplishing the high register demands. His voice has grown equal throughout his whole register (he used to possess an unstable vibrato in some zones of his voice) and he attacks the several high B flats and B naturals (and even the high D flat at the end of his duet with Gilda “Addio, addio…”) with relative ease. His voice sounds flexible and light in “Questa o quella,” tender and emotional in “Ella mi fu rapita,” and sardonic in “La donna é mobile.”
His interpretation of this sadistic tamer is strong and believable, but there is something that sadly tarnishes his performance – his blurred unclear diction. Not only do the vocals disappear when going higher than G natural, all becoming some sort of round “o” sound, but even his consonants are dubious, showing that he is more worried with voice production and sound than about the words he is singing, Sadly enough he would be a remarkable Duke of Mantua if his diction were precise and clear.
The young French soprano Mélissa Petit incarnates the sweet Gilda. She debuted the role in this production, something impossible to notice due to her secure interpretation of the role and remarkable vocal technique.
She has a sweet sparkling timbre which matches the young girl perfectly; a depurated coloratura technique to handle all the scales, staccatos, and dynamics of the score; and powerful sparkling high notes, as she proves in her duet with Rigoletto in Act one and in her famous aria “Caro nome,” where she gives a display of traditionally imposed high notes.
Her middle register is strong enough to sustain “Tutte le feste al tempio,” providing dramatic impetus to this central piece and demonstrating once more how the potency of high register with her sustained E flat at the end of “La Vendetta.”
She becomes much more dramatic in Act three and sings the storm scene with determination and adds a deep insightful interpretation of her death scene with piannismi high B flats. Her stage chemistry with Stoyanov is remarkable, and it is impossible to overlook her physical stamina as she is lifted in the air by cables and has to climb the scenery several times. Watching her performance, you would not believe she was debuting this role.
Bringing it Home
Miklós Sbestyén portrays an impressive Sparafucile with his profound bass voice. Dressed as a skeleton, he shines dramatically in this short part. Katrin Wundsam unusually sings two roles: Giovanna and Maddalena. The first one is reduced to a few spare lines, but in Maddalena she shows her erotism and powerful mezzo-soprano sound.
Enrique Mazzola conducts the Wiener Symphoniker as if he was in a hurry to end up the performance, offering the fastest performance of “Rigoletto” I have ever heard. It provides for a truly frenzied performance that suits the production, but in the process, he loses tension and gives little space for the singers to hold their high notes “a piacere” as it is usually done in cadenzas and climactic moments.
The realization of the video by Felix Breisach is surprisingly good considering the sloppy editing we have to see these days with so many HD transmissions. he had a difficult task. With the spectacle conceived as a big show to be seen from the distance, he manages to wonderfully balance between showing all the spectacular actions that are always happening on the stage with close-ups on intimate or climactic moments. The sound is remarkably natural and balanced as the voices sound great, which is again a hard task with the use of amplification.
In this case comprehensible due to the nature of an open-air performance. But we must not forget that nowadays, the use of microphones to record the soloist voices is a common practice while recording performances, so they can mix the sound better and balance the voice. That is why I have not made any mention of projection or volume of the voices as this is something that can only be judged in live performances within the theatre.
Ultimately, this is spectacular production of “Rigoletto” led by Vladimir Stoyanov, one of the best Rigoletto interpreters of the last generation, and a surprising debut by Mélissa Petit as Gilda. This is a great addition for opera lovers and even those who are looking for a fun avenue into the world of opera.