Giuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto
Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège - 2015
Renato Palumbo, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Leo Nucci, Desirée Rancatore, Gianluca Terranova, Luciano Montanaro, Carla Dirlikov, Benoît Delvaux, Roger Joakim, Alexise Yerna, Giovanni Iovino, Patrick Delcour, Laura Balidemaj, Victor Cousu
Culturebox - 28 March 2015
The Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège can be fairly adventurous in their stage presentations of lesser-known, rarely performed works, but they tend to approach the big popular works with a little more caution, undoubtedly not wanting to challenge the core audience for traditional repertoire too much. Such is the case with their 2015 production of Verdi's Rigoletto, with the ORW's colourful artistic director Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera going as far as to take the work right back to the designs for its original production at La Fenice in 1851.
Such a looking-backward approach can be a little disheartening for anyone who believes that opera can be a progressive artform and that truly classic works are strong enough to withstand reinterpretation and indeed remain so relevant that they merit such an approach. There is of course some interest in seeing how a work like Rigoletto might have looked to an audience back in 1851, even if it's only from a historical perspective. Rigoletto however is a work that also has a very specific structure and dramatic stage presence, and that would appear to be director's rationale here, seeing how the work would move and breathe if the performers are given sufficient space, since it is between the protagonists that the real drama occurs.
The old-fashioned painted backdrops don't look terribly inspiring, nor does the 19th century approach to medieval costume design. The lighting is also designed to match the colourful period look, and even the directing is very much in the traditional manner, with the singers mainly standing and singing their parts out to the audience. Fortunately this approach can still bring out the best in Rigoletto, which functions something like a relay race, the solo singer passing on the baton to the next solo performance in a handover duet that has the real dramatic conflict and drive. You take it and run with it and you're heading towards a thrilling finish ...if you have good enough individual runners, no weak links and no fumbling in the handovers.
Fortunately, that is clearly the case with the cast that Liège have assembled for this 2015 production. You know you have little to worry about when you have Leo Nucci, probably the best and most experienced Verdi baritone anywhere in the world today (over 440 performances) cast as Rigoletto. Nucci is never anything less than completely within the role and the drama of the moment, never playing to the audience, even though the open stage and traditional setting permits and even encourages such an approach. Nucci resists any temptation to grandstand and his singing remains firm, expressive and controlled. There's not a gesture, a note that you could fault or criticise anywhere. He knows the role of the Duke's jester just about better than anyone, and he's a simply a marvel here.
All of which, of course, only puts even greater pressure on your Gilda, particularly when the direction seems to focus on her role in the opera. Rigoletto, let's face it, is ostensibly a revenge drama. The curse of Count Monterone in revenge for the Duke's seduction of his daughter and Rigoletto's hiring of the assassin Sparafucile in revenge for the humiliation he has suffered at Gilda's dishonour create the tensions that drive the essence of the plot. There is however much more to the story and the characterisation than this, particularly in how Verdi scores for the characters and in how he arranges those duet confrontations.
Of particular interest to Stefano Mazzonis in this production is the development of Gilda from innocent young girl who knows nothing - not even the circumstances of her birth and parentage - to an independent young woman who acts of her own will in Act II, and out of choice, chooses to pay for the decisions she has made in Act III. As such there's a lot of pressure placed upon Desirée Rancatore in this production, and she carries it off quite impressively. There's a fine 'Caro nome' in Act I, but she only really comes into her role as this expression of innocence is left behind. Act II is challenging, all the more so for being paired with Nucci, but the two work well together. The close-up camera angle selected for Gilda's death scene is merciless on the viewer, particularly as Rancatore acts it so well. It's a measure of how far her character has come on, and a measure of how well Rancatore plays it.
Such is the success of the partnership between Nucci and Rancatore that that the Act II final duet 'Sì! Vendetta, tremenda vendetta!' is met with long and loud applause, and the audience are rewarded with an encore. It's rare to see these nowadays, but completely merited here, and the performance is just as thrilling second time around. Just to round things off to near perfection, the ORW production finds a terrific Duke in Gianluca Terranova. He has a strong, bright, clear delivery, plays up the charming seducer blithely unaware of the harm he causes other people rather than one who is cruel and heartless, but he doesn't overplay it either. Renato Palumbo's musical direction is measured and well-paced, the orchestra giving a fine performance, revealing all the power of Verdi's score as well as the subtleties and beauty that is there the characterisation.
Links: Culturebox, Opéra Royal de Wallonie