Wiener Staatsoper, 2014
Myung-Whun Chung, Pierre Audi, Piotr Beczala, Simon Keenlyside, Paolo Rumetz, Erin Morley, Ryan Speedo Green, Elena Maximova
Donna Ellen, Sorin Coliban, Mihail Dogotari, James Kryshak, Marcus Pelz, Lydia Rathkolb, Hila Fahima
ORF2 TV - 20 December 2014
Rigoletto is a cruel little opera. It's hard to tell whether it's genuinely cynical about love and family or whether, as the title of Victor Hugo's original work 'Le roi s'amuse' suggests, it's critical of how the nobility run roughshod over the ordinary citizen in their pursuit of self-interest. What can probably be said with a little more certainty is that the author at least intentionally exploits the sentiment and poignancy of his characters by putting them through moments of intense cruelty just to heighten the melodrama to make readers and audiences gasp. Whatever the original intentions might have been, Verdi's in his first great masterpiece where he firmly makes his own personal mark of genius upon the rigid format of the traditional opera template, recognises the full value of each moment, each situation and each character, and plays one off against the other with incredible skill.
Verdi of course does this, and in doing so advances upon the number opera format, by composing Rigoletto as a series of duets that use the same opposition of lofty ideals with cruel reality. The Duke sees it all as fun while Monterone suffers the abuse of his authority; Rigoletto believes himself a wit who strikes with the word, but he's prepared to consider the more satisfying immediacy of Sparafucile's sword; Rigoletto tries to spare his daughter Gilda from the harsh reality of the world, and in so doing leaves her naivety to be exploited so cruelly by the 'vil razza dannata' whose bidding he serves. Even the Duke's idea of the deal that has been struck between himself and Sparafucile's 'sister' differs from the reality of their transaction, although even this is twisted away in turn from what Rigoletto believes to be the case. The outcome, fate, or the curse that afflicts them would seem to be particularly cruel in this respect towards those with the most to lose.
In itself however, Verdi's music has no moral outlook on the different views and expresses no cynicism towards the characters, or at least he treats each of them with equanimity. He gives Gilda a sensitive and heartfelt aria in 'Caro nome' - even as we know the true nature of her beloved - and views the Duke's nature in 'Questa o quella' and 'La donna è mobile' not from an objective outside view, but as the Duke sees himself, as a cheeky and loveable rogue. At the same time, Verdi recognises the dark side of the nature of man and that simmers in the background throughout the heightened conflict of ideals, building in each act of the opera, finding full expression at the conclusions of each of those acts, and each of those acts in turn further increasing the stakes upon the previous one. It's masterful composition.
As the opera's tone darkens however towards the pitch black Act III, it becomes harder to reconcile those opposing views that lean towards melodrama, but Verdi still does it. Gilda's sacrifice in Act III would make no sense where it not for Verdi's music having indicated and convinced the listener to her innocence, nobility and purity throughout. It's not so much that this naivety is exploited, as far as Verdi is concerned, for the sake of torrid melodrama, as much as it is necessary to believe in some kind of redemption in such a dark world. This makes all the difference, and it's what also makes Rigoletto greater as an opera in comparison to the unmitigated darkness of earlier works like I Due Foscari, where the humanity is buried too deeply in the bleakness of the situations and the fates of the characters.
A production of Rigoletto ideally has to find a similar balance if it is to match Verdi's intentions, although there's no reason why a director can't put emphasis elsewhere, should it suit the purposes of the production. Verdi's art is not so restrictive that it doesn't allow other interpretations to work and be fully expressed. Pierre Audi's production - not terribly well received at its December 2014 première in Vienna - doesn't make a big deal of the period or the location, but is rather very much about setting mood. A revolving stage depicts the Duke's palace in golden hues of faded and peeling glitter and Rigoletto's residence as grey and shabby place, which probably reflects the reality that underlies the character of the owners of these respective places. The space that lies between them is a barren area of broken trees, but the skull-like ramshackle construction of the inn also goes some way towards expressing the increasing intensity of Verdi's score in the third Act. 'I see hell itself' says Gilda at the inn, and this at least looks like it.
Principally in Rigoletto however, it's the voices that matter most in establishing individual character, and getting that right can make all the difference, particularly in how those roles play off one another in the duets. As essential as the Duke and Gilda are - and they are well performed here by Piotr Beczala's Pirates of the Caribbean-styled Duke and a determined knowing-her-own-mind Gilda in Erin Morley - Rigoletto is evidently central to nearly all those duets, his arrogance over the importance of his position as the Duke's fool, his fear of the curse and his over-protectiveness of Gilda preventing him from being able to stand up and make the necessary clear-headed decisions that are needed to survive in the ruthless court of the Duke. The Vienna production's Rigoletto was superbly cast in Simon Keenlyside to bring such characteristics out, but the première performance nonetheless ran into some unexpected problems.
Visibly unwell in the first act of the première Keenlyside's voice failed him and, according to reports, he was forced to withdraw following Act II's Cortigiani on the first night and was replaced by Paolo Rumetz for the remainder of the performance. Although this would have been broadcast live to TV and cinemas on the 20th Dec, the version I viewed on ORF's catch-up service on the 24th Dec showed Rumetz singing the whole of Act II and III. Keenlyside's Act I performance was retained however, without the footage of him breaking down in Act II, so presumably the complete Act II was inserted from the subsequent performance on the 23rd. Even though ill, there's enough here to see how different a performance this Rigoletto would have been with Keenlyside in the title role.
Act I shows a much more robust, distinctive performance, with Keenlyside's usual attention to character detail, expressing genuine feeling with an absence of the more 'operatic' mannerisms that can be found in Rumetz's version. On full form, Keenlyside's interaction with the cast in the remaining acts would undoubted have lifted this production significantly in how he plays off Beczala and Morley (reports have said as much about a blistering Act II duet with Gilda before his voice broke down). As it is, Rumetz is more than capable in the role, and considering the circumstances, even outstanding in taking over the role mid-performance. Only Elena Maximova seemed completely miscast and lost as Maddalena - strong enough as part of the quartet, but when singing solo her weakness in delivery and diction were very apparent. Keenlyside returned at the curtain call and was applauded, but despite the predictable booing in some sections for Audi's production team, this was a valiant effort that just unfortunately ran into some unavoidable problems.