Giuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto
Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2013
Gianandrea Noseda, Robert Carsen, George Gagnidze, Irina Lungu, Arturo Chacón-Cruz, Gábor Bretz, Josè Maria Lo Monaco, Michèle Lagrange, Arutjun Kotchinian, Julien Dran, Jean-Luc Ballestra, Maurizio Lo Piccolo, Paggio Valeria Tornatore
ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming - 12 July 2013
If Verdi's Rigoletto has proved to be one of the composer's works most apt to being reworked into new and modern situations, it's a measure not only of its popularity or its musical accomplishments as in how the dramatic strengths of Victor Hugo's original work are brought vividly to life by Verdi. Its treatment on the subject of power and moral corruption and the human cost associated with it has made it suitable to a Mafia updating (in Jonathan Miller's production) and even as a Rat Pack version in 1960s Las Vegas seen recently at the Met. The richness of the work however allows other interesting themes to be drawn from it.
For a director like Robert Carsen, one of his themes of interest, taken to varying levels of success in his productions, is the post-modern theme of performance itself. All the world is indeed a stage, and at the heart of Rigoletto there remains a fascinating flawed figure who plays the role of the fool and ends up becoming one. He allows himself to be flattered to be part of Duke of Mantua's corrupt inner circle and become complicit in its crimes, hoping to keep his true nature as a loving father separate from the role he plays at court. Those two worlds collide through what he fears to be the curse of a nobleman, Monterone, but in reality he's largely responsible for his own downfall.
There's comedy and tragedy and even a certain amount of farce in the way that Rigoletto becomes the author of his own daughter's death, so it's not too much of a stretch to see him characterised as he is here in Carsen's production as a traditional clown. And, since there has to be some recognition that opera is also about performance and the playing to visual expectations, there's a knowing hint of Pagliacci thrown in here as well. And, yes, Carsen's version is set entirely within the big top of a circus - performance writ large. It's not the most original of interpretations, but for the most part, the production works without having to distort the intentions of the opera's themes too much.
The opening scene that starts with what is traditionally an orgy at the Duke's palace is transformed here into a big performance of acrobats and dancers in a circus arena. The Duke of Monterone's young daughter is not so much seduced and defiled here then as a willing participant, a dancer who strips down topless with other dancers who are not wearing much else either. She's as much a performer seeking the attention and favour of the Duke as Rigoletto. All the other participants seem likewise to be compelled to play their parts. Gilda cannot give up her devotion to the Duke, the assassin Sparafucile must honour his bargain in one fashion or another, and despite his fear of the curse of Monterone, Rigoletto must continue to play his part as a clown. The show must go on.
If the circus location isn't the most naturalistic setting and doesn't provide an entirely suitable platform for Rigoletto's scenes, it does nonetheless sustain some elements reasonably well. Act One sees Rigoletto and Gilda in a small caravan with collapsible sides, Gilda sings her paean of love to Gualtier Maldè ('Caro nome') from a raised acrobat's swing (a brave performance from Irina Lungu that nonetheless doesn't quite hit the same heights here), and Gilda is then abducted while Rigoletto is distracted holding a ladder for acrobats to ascend. It all adds up and works with the musical score, even if it doesn't quite conform to the letter of the libretto. Act II and III remain within the circus tent and there are fewer ideas, but Act II doesn't require much more than the iconographic image of Rigoletto in sad clown make-up face to draw the full extent and nature of his humiliation. Act III's rope cage for an inn is a curious set-up, but the drop of the curtain is well-employed as it the impact of the falling acrobat that closes the performance here.
If you're prepared to go along with Carsen's take on the circus setting and find that it works to some extent, the reason is more than likely to be because you are caught up in the vividness of Verdi's most compact and dramatically expressive score, and because Gianandrea Noseda propels it along superbly. The conductor notes in the Aix Festival programme that ('Caro nome' aside) Rigoletto is like "a volcanic eruption. Once the music starts, it doesn't let up for a moment". He recognises that this, and Verdi's marriage of the most wonderful music to a dramatically compact series of confrontations mostly in duet form, is what makes Rigoletto a truly remarkable work. Carsen's production allows the dramatic expression to match the musical flow and the intent of the drama, if not quite in the conventional way, while having some personal commentary to make about it as well.
The other essential element that is needed to fully support the work is of course the singing, and it's strong exactly where it needs to be. I haven't heard George Gagnidze before, but he strikes me as a near perfect Rigoletto, and Verdi baritones of this quality are thin on the ground at the moment. His glorious timbre is warm and expressive, not just clearly enunciating the words, but fully bringing them to life. It's probably even more difficult to find good Verdi sopranos and tenors of quality at the moment, but Irina Lungu and Arturo Chacón-Cruz cope well. Lungu struggles to hold some of the challenging high notes early on, but comes through strongly later in the challenging musical drama. Chacón-Cruz might not always have the forceful delivery required either, they brings the right kind of light charm, glamour and dramatic intensity to make an impact at those points where it is most needed.
Rigoletto at the Aix-en-Provence Festival is available for viewing on-line (with French subtitles) from the ARTE Live Web site.