Staatsoper Berlin 2019-20 Review: Rigoletto

Aida Garifullina & Christopher Mailman Shine In Bartlett Sher’s Unsatisfactory Production

By Elyse Lyon
(Credit: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg)

Bartlett Sher’s “Rigoletto,” new this year at the Staatsoper Berlin, initially appeared an intriguingly localized production. Though a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, its context and setting were uniquely Berlin. The opera’s action has been relocated to Weimar-era Germany, and the stage was dominated by the paintings of the Berlin-born painter George Grosz. The audience, as they filed in to take their seats, was greeted with a scrim bearing an enlarged detail from Grosz’s “Metropolis.” As the opera began and the scrim disappeared, one discovered that the entire set was wallpapered with Grosz’s paintings of Weimar-era Berlin. The bulk of this set consisted of a cavernous ballroom in Art Deco style, where Grosz’s paintings, magnified nearly to the point of abstraction, had an effect resembling that of floral wallpaper.

It seemed, at first, a fitting relocation of “Rigoletto.” The Berlin Grosz’s paintings depict—crammed with people, noisy, crude, violent, lecherous, constantly on the verge of a conflagration—bears more than a passing resemblance to the depraved society of the Duke of Mantua.

The setting, too, provided the opportunity for a wealth of thought-provoking contrasts. No allusion to the libertinage of the Weimar Republic can fail to evoke disquieting thoughts of the Nazis’ ensuing rise. It’s a period that trembles between one era and another, tense as an unresolved chord progression.

It was electrifying, in that light, to witness the Act one scene when Count Monterone barges into the Duke’s party. The party itself, despite its Weimar-era décor, recalled an earlier era. The men glittered with gold epaulettes and military medals; the women hung to the sides, all satin and glittering jewels. The tableau they presented appeared only superficially different from the paintings of Prussian court life on display at Museum Island across the street from the Staatsoper.

As Giorgi Mtchedlishvili’s wild-eyed Count Monterone cursed Rigoletto and the Duke, however, the faces of the men in the ballroom assumed an alarming severity. They appeared neither amused nor unduly upset by Monterone’s outburst: they were simply stone-faced, impassive, waiting for Monterone to finish. When he did, their voices rose in a terrifyingly impersonal sentence of death. It was a scene that mirrored the dynamics of Germany’s years of authoritarian rule, when political purges took the lives of many men much like Monterone: one moment an insider, the next a traitor, and from there to prison or the grave. One was reminded of how easily the libertine freedoms of Weimar Germany descended into authoritarianism. In Sher’s Weimar “Rigoletto,” the Nazi period has not yet arrived, but the human flaws that would birth it are already strongly in evidence.

Rigoletto’s home life was equally evocative in this interwar context. The house he shared with Gilda bore no resemblance to the court of the Duke: it was a comfortably tasteful space where a floor lamp cast a golden glow across an invitingly overstuffed armchair and a votive candle flickered before a painting of the Madonna. As Christopher Maltman’s Rigoletto cast off the brutality of his public persona and sank into the role of the doting father, as Aida Garifullina’s Gilda teased her father, then confronted him about the secrets he kept from her, it was difficult not to recall portrayals of Nazi home life. Rigoletto’s ability to divide his public life from his private sphere; his capacity to participate in the Duke’s wickedness and then lovingly fawn over his daughter; his obsession, most of all, with forbidding his daughter any knowledge of his job or his social circle: it all recalled the capacity of men to engage in the worst acts of evil, then to wash their hands of crime and sit down to dinner with an adoring family. Like the earlier incident with Monterone, the contrast between Rigoletto’s public and private lives seemed to hint at the human capacity for evil that would soon find its apogee in the coming Nazi rule.

None of these undertones, however, were satisfactorily resolved. The tension of the Weimar era was like Chekhov’s proverbial gun, hung on the wall in the first act but ultimately left unfired. In the final act, the setting seemed little more than window dressing. Mariana Pentcheva, in an acid-green dress trimmed with feathers and a violently red-purple wig, put in an amusingly coarse, yet maternal performance as the prostitute Maddalena. Brash and loud as a fishwife, she was a thoroughly Weimar character, a cross between Christopher Isherwood’s cabaret singers and the lumpish, crude prostitutes of Heinrich Zille’s caricatures. The Weimar setting, nevertheless, had no obvious resonance with the culmination of the plot.

After the intriguing undercurrents evident in Act one, it was disappointing to feel that the setting contributed no additional meaning to the story’s climax. Perhaps the production would have been less of a disappointment if seen in New York, where the Weimar era might seem an exotic fragment of the past rather than a period which, along with its aftermath, has visibly shaped the character of the city in which the Staatsoper exists.

Phenomenal Voices

The primary pleasure of the performance was in the singing. The Staatskapelle Berlin, under Diego Matheuz’s direction, played with elegance and an unshowy dramatic intensity. Matheuz’s primary goal was evidently the support of the singers. Beneath his baton, the orchestra expertly created a foundation for the singers to rest on.

The most impressive performances came from Maltman and, in particular, Garifullina. While Francesco Demuro’s Duke sounded nervous and thin-voiced at the start of Act one, Maltman’s Rigoletto was commandingly confident from the first notes he sang. The sheer power of his voice was awe-inspiring as it thundered through the auditorium. At times, however, his performance lacked a dramatic nuance to match its thunderous volume. He was most intriguing in the first act, when the restraint of his emotional displays painted a picture of a Rigoletto who had, through harsh life experience, learned to reveal nothing to anyone. Over the course of the night, however, one wished for a wider range of emotional expression from Maltman. He was loving and anguished, haunted and vengeful—and yet his expression of these emotions seemed repetitive, as if he were working with a vocal paint box containing a limited set of colors. His voice awed and surprised with its power, but rarely with its emotional nuance.

Most striking were his scenes with Garifullina’s Gilda. After hearing the tremendous boom of his voice through the beginning of the first act, it seemed impossible that a youthful soprano could match Maltman’s sheer power. Garifullina did it splendidly, however. The contrast between their voices was a psychologically thrilling one. For Garifullina’s Gilda, with her lithe, clear voice and girlish prettiness, to match the vocal power of her formidable father imbued Gilda’s character with a sense of remarkable strength. Gilda no longer seemed such an aggravatingly self-destructive character. Instead, she seemed more spiritually akin to one of Wagner’s self-sacrificing women: Senta, Isolde, even Brünnhilde—all women who die for men, but who impress with their fearsome, strong-willed personalities before they do so.

Garifullina, like Maltman, was in confident command of the stage from beginning to end. While her high notes were needle-sharp on the ear at times, her portrayal of the role was grippingly interesting, dramatically perceptive, and imbued with an indefinable magic. One of the highlights of the night was the Act two scene of her reunion with her father. Garifullina poignantly portrayed Gilda’s fear and shame, and her character’s all-too-real preoccupation with her own guilt rather than with that of the men who kidnapped her: like many women in similar positions, her first impulse is to blame herself and to fear punishment.

Here, too, Maltman was at his most touching. He reached toward his daughter first as if afraid to touch her, and then as if afraid to let her go. When Gilda sang of him as her consoling angel, his voice rose and met hers with an angelic compassion in its tone. He was, in those moments, the man his daughter sees: no longer the vengeful hunchback, but the tender father Gilda alone knows.

A Spellbinding “Parmi veder le lagrime”

Demuro’s Duke was at his best in his Act two entrance. Unlike Garifullina and Maltman, Demuro’s portrayal of his character remained two-dimensional throughout the performance. Demuro’s voice was small alongside those of his castmates, and it often sounded nasal and forced. One never had a sense of the Duke as a full-fleshed individual. He seemed, at most, a weak-chinned aristocrat, handsome but lacking in personality as well as in zest for life.

In his arias, however, Demuro shone. His “Parmi veder le lagrime” was one of the night’s unforgettable moments. His phrasing was spellbinding, his portamentos luscious. It was an aria during which time seemed to stop, casting an enchantment over the opera house in which one could no longer think, but only felt.

During the bulk of the opera, however, Demuro seemed never to quite find his footing. Though his arias provided some of the evening’s most beguiling and technically ravishing moments, his well-sung “La donna è mobile” fell somewhat flat without a strong force of personality to animate it.

An Audience-Pleasing Night

The remainder of the cast completed a satisfyingly strong ensemble. Grigory Shkarupa’s Sparafucile was pleasingly sung while Giorgi Mtchedlishvili’s  Monterone was just as riveting in the second act as the first. Mad with anguish, he made a powerful counterpoint to Maltman. While Maltman remained largely emotionally restrained, Mtchedlishvili expressed the festering, all-consuming pain of a character whose heart, we feel, is being gnawed apart from the inside as he dwells obsessively on the shame the Duke brought to his daughter. Victoria Randem, in the minor dual role of Countess Ceprano and the Act two page, delighted with a voice so rich and creamy that the brevity of her appearances was a cause for sorrow.

All in all, it was a thoroughly high-quality performance, one guaranteed to please the vast majority of audience members. Sher’s production, despite its unresolved tensions, was elegant, visually appealing, and did not intrude overmuch on the drama. Diego Matheuz’s conducting was not wildly exciting, but it offered an excellent environment for the singers to display their considerable talents. In moments when Maltman’s performance seemed too emotionally muted, the Staatskapelle stepped in to vividly portray the heights and depths of his emotions. Their rendition of the Act three storm scene, too, raged with captivating savagery.

 

 

 

 

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