Friday, 20 May 2016

Verdi - Rigoletto (Opéra National de Paris, 2016)

Giuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

L'Opéra National de Paris, 2016

Pier Giorgio Morandi, Claus Guth, Francesco Demuro, Franco Vassallo, Irina Lungu, Andrea Mastroni, Vesselina Kasarova, Isabelle Druet, Mikhail Kolelishvili, Michal Partyka, Christophe Berry, Tiago Matos, Andreea Soare, Adriana Gonzalez, Florent Mbia

Bastille, Paris - 14 May 2016

There's been a very evident attempt to make the artistic direction of the Paris Opera a bit more cutting edge again under its new director Stephane Lissner, but Claus Guth's setting of Rigoletto in a brown cardboard box seems to being taking things a little too far. It's hardly the most attractive or imaginative representation for the dramatic setting of the opera in Mantua, and it's hard to imagine how it could even suit the purposes of Guth's usually intense psychological exploration of character and motivation.

It's not so much the case that Mantua and its royal court are represented by a cardboard box however as much as it's Rigoletto's regrets that are packed away in the box. The broken and dishevelled jester walks to the front of the stage at the start of the opera, wearing a grimy overcoat, his whitened clown make-up scored with deep creases, carrying a box that holds his only possessions. Rigoletto despairingly draws out a clown suit and a bloodstained white dress and the opera commences in flashback all within the confines of the larger box that fills the stage.

It's a relatively straightforward device in that respect and there's actually not any real licence taken with the characters or the drama elsewhere. The period is vague and non-specific, the costumes period in style for opening royal court scene, even if the set is plain brown corrugated cardboard, but it gradually moves into more modern styled dress as the opera progresses. As plain as the set is, it's functional, requiring few changes between acts - a staircase added in Act II, some of the flaps opening to provide doorways for the tavern scene and some projections are used. It consistently remains a representation of Rigoletto's life after the event being reduced to the contents of a cardboard box.

For deeper exploration of character then and the complex father/daughter issues at the heart of the work, Guth relies on another familiar device often employed in his productions; the use of doubles. Rigoletto in the flashback is represented by the singer, but the actor who 'unboxed' the memory is frequently present on the stage at the same time, distraught and helpless, unable to intervene and change what has already occurred. This added level of regret does highlight Rigoletto's folly to some extent and bring a little more intensity to the scenes, but no more really than you if you've seen the opera before and already know what is ahead.

Gilda is similarly split and not just to one double but to a series of Gildas in dancers of different ages. Unsurprisingly, these younger Gildas are intended to show the young girl as an innocent, but more than that they also reflect her 'growth'. Rigoletto's protection of Gilda means that her growth is stunted in a way that leads to her innocence being cruelly abused when it comes into contact with the real world, but it does bring about a twisted kind of growth that can also account for her sacrifice in the final act. It's nothing new, just another way to emphasise or perhaps 'translate' a more melodramatic device from the past into one that carries a little more credibility for a modern audience today.

What appears to be given more emphasis in Guth's version that is not so often explored is the relationship between the assassin Sparafucile and Rigoletto, since Sparafucile when he first appears acts as a mirror image of Rigoletto. Again, this is just emphasising what is there in the libretto, Rigoletto even acknowledging that the two men are alike, only one kills with words while the other kills with the sword. Drawing attention to this however does put greater emphasis on the cowardice of the jester, his hiding his failure to act behind words, just as he hides his identity from his daughter. This of course comes back to haunt him and in this version - as it's done in flashback - he already knows it, which only intensifies his failure and his pitiful attempts to shift the blame onto a 'maledizione'.

Cardboard box aside then, Guth's Rigoletto sticks fairly closely to the accepted characterisation with only a little shift of where the emphasis lies and it's fairly successful in where it applies them. In the first Act at least however, it's not at all certain that the music and singing performances measure up to it. It all feels somewhat half-hearted and routine. As is usually the case with Rigoletto however, I find that you have to reserve judgement until Act II and Act III. Which, as an aside, makes me begin to wonder whether the first Act is really all it's cracked up to be. It certainly has all the elements in place and Verdi spices it up with plenty of dramatic colour and some famous arias, but it rarely ever seems to take off. Guth's production doesn't really help matters here in Paris.

Act II and III however, while the direction doesn't particularly contribute much more to the production, are indeed more alive and engaging, which suggests that Act I is really just a prelude to set the scene or act as a counterbalance for the fireworks in the subsequent Acts. Accordingly, there's a noticeably more invigorating drive from Pier Giorgio Morandi's conducting of the orchestra that is matched by what takes place on the stage and in the singing. Franco Vassallo's Rigoletto is by no means one of the great interpretations of the role, but there was no sign of faltering or being challenged by it. The 'Cortigiani' is a good measure of a Rigoletto and Vassallo was more than capable, carrying the role well but not really inspired or even truly fired-up.

The same could be said about most of the other roles in these second cast performances for the later run of the 2016 production. Francesco Demuro's Duke of Mantua was however by far the most impressive, his bright tenor voice clear and ringing, sailing through 'La donna è mobile' with such charm that it appeared natural and effortless. We didn't get to see much of the Duke's 'evil' side, but that was more of a directing decision and a surprising omission for Guth since the Duke seems the most obvious dual-personality in the opera. Irina Lungu had a few wavers, but rose to the challenges of Gilda's role and brought some personality to it. Andrea Mastroni was fine if not making as menacing a Sparafucile as you might like.  Vesselina Kasarova is, to say the least, an acquired taste, but she is capable of some interesting interpretations. Not her Maddalena unfortunately, which was wayward, wooly and largely inaudible, her voice now losing much of its former force.

Even if it wasn't traditionally staged and the singing wasn't of the highest standards, the Paris Rigoletto hit the mark sufficiently at all the necessary dramatic and musical points. Act I carried off the tricky staging of Gilda's abduction stylishly if not naturalistically, mainly through the choreography of the courtiers in their masks, the scene ending with the thundering accompaniment to Rigoletto's dread of Monterone's curse. Act II's duets had pace and fury in equal measure and although the staging of Gilda's death scene remained largely off-stage, represented only by a falling curtain, the full impact of the scene was felt.

This performance of Rigoletto was viewed at the Bastille on the 14th May 2016. A recording of the production with the alternative cast that includes Olga Peretyatko (Gilda), Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto) and Michael Fabiano (Rigoletto) is currently available streaming on-line on France TV's Culturebox website, although region restrictions are in place.

Links: L'Opéra National de Paris, Culturebox