Sunday, 7 October 2018

Verdi - Rigoletto (Belfast, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

Northern Ireland Opera, Belfast - 2018

Gareth Hancock, Walter Sutcliffe, Sebastian Catana, Nadine Koutcher, Davide Giusti, Fleur Barron, Taras Berezhansky, Simon Thorpe, Ben McAteer, John Porter, David Robertson, Maria McGrann, Ann Jennings, Rebekah Coffey, Malachy Frame

Grand Opera House - 2 October 2018

How much a production design or conceptual approach adds to a work like Verdi's Rigoletto is questionable. Whether it's set as a Las Vegas crime caper, in a circus or in a cardboard box, Verdi is still Verdi, and the themes of Rigoletto are writ large. In fact, large works well in all the above cases, playing up to Verdi's thunderous tale of love and hate, virtue and vice, sacrifice and revenge. There's not a great deal of room for nuance or subtlety in either the music or the themes, but it does hit on those extremes of human nature in a way that is powerful and ever more recognisable in the nature of the world today.

Big is what we were promised by Walter Sutcliffe in his first full-scale opera production as the director of Northern Ireland Opera at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, and big is what we got. The production and Kaspar Glarner's sets were imported from the National Opera of Chile and the commencement of their assembly at the docks over a month ago even made the local press. It certainly proved to be a flexible if somewhat bulky piece of stage craft, flowing from one scene to the next, rooms and alcoves appearing and spinning off with members of the cast still on them as they hit the final notes of their arias. Rigoletto is an opera of momentum and you want to keep it flowing, and this impressive design permitted that.

It was however probably a bit surplus to requirements. I think there were three scene changes in the short overture alone, and I mean major reconfigurations of high walls, shifting and interlocking to establish mood and location, from a dark moonlit alley to the palace of the Duke of Mantua. Act I of Rigoletto is rarely satisfactory in terms of narrative presentation, it can feel heavy handed with the rakish Duke and his wild party, threatening any Counts who oppose his making off with their wives and daughters; the contrast too pronounced between the court jester's cruel evisceration of the nobility and the innocent home life he enjoys keeping his own daughter locked away. His convenient meeting with an assassin in an alley and his observation about Sparafucile killing with a sword while he does it with a word also feels contrived.

Contrived is also an apt description for what follows - all still in Act I - when we find that Gilda is being pursued by the Duke pretending to be a poor student, and that Rigoletto's friends/enemies at the court are planning to abduct the 'woman' the hunchback has hidden away from them. And yet, already Verdi is establishing connections and contrasts to set up in opposition and clash in a hugely melodramatic fashion. He's also capable of putting those sentiments across in an effective way, with hooks of melody, with opportunities in the vocal writing not just for the performers to show off, but to express the depth of those feelings, placing human emotions up against the cruel realities of the world. Act II and Act III confront that brilliantly.

I say that Verdi's music lacks nuance and subtlety and that may be true, but Rigoletto was innovative in many ways in the mid-19th century. It does dare to go to the darker side of human nature, Verdi does tie the music more meaningfully to actions and emotions, but he also conjures up atmospheric effects like the approaching thunderstorm in Act III. Despite the work also containing some of his most popular and well-known arias and melodies ('Questa o quella', 'Caro nome', 'Cortigiani'), Verdi also breaks away from standard number format and presents those opposing sentiments in a series of duets that propel and drive the work forward, culminating in Act III's famous quartet.

Somehow however, while the energy and drive were there, the spark or frisson of danger that should arise out of it never materialised in the Northern Ireland Opera/Ópera Nacional de Chile production. It was through no fault of the Gareth Hancock conducting the Ulster Orchestra, although it did often seem to have more drive than heart. It certainly was through no fault of the singing; Sutcliffe promised world-class singers for this production and, my goodness, he delivered on that. I don't think I've ever heard a live performance sung as well as this.

Making his first UK appearance, Sebastian Catana is a true Verdi baritone, something that is an increasingly rare commodity. The contrast between his delivery of Rigoletto and Plácido Domingo more recently playing a baritone in the same role is enormous. Catana's singing had power, resonance and control, his diction clear, his presence and performance convincing. We also has a Cardiff Singer of the World in Nadine Koutcher who could stop you in your tracks as Gilda, navigating not just the difficult and expressive coloratura, but also finding a place where the innocence of her character could co-exist with her developing sense of personality and self-realisation. Davide Giusti didn't have quite the same power of expression behind his voice, but never faltered and has his own distinctive Italianate style.

As good as all these performances were, there was still an emotional hollowness to the characterisation that suggests a lack of any real direction or interaction. That could be partly due to the set designs not really allowing the characters to engage with each other. Sparafucile for example smacks his hand when slapping Maddalena when she pleas for the life of the handsome Duke, and she flinches from the other side of the stage. Stylistically there's nothing wrong with touches like that - you get the idea well enough - but here and elsewhere it just doesn't make the same visceral connection with the music. Verdi's Rigoletto doesn't need modernisation or the conceptual approaches of those above mentioned productions, and it doesn't need huge elaborate sets, but it can sustain them if there's heart and belief in the work. Despite production values and singing of the highest standards that just didn't come across in this Northern Ireland Opera production.

Links: Northern Ireland Opera