Rigoletto, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, February 2014Posted on 14 February 2014
The original Victor Hugo play (Le roi s’amuse) that underlies Verdi’s Rigoletto takes place in the sixteenth century French court of François I. This touch of lèse majesté made the censors reject it, and the action was eventually transferred to Mantua with the King as a Duke, but the main point is that he has to have absolute power. Jonathan Miller has done it with the Duke as a crime boss, and the present director Christopher Alden set it more than ten years ago in a dissolute nineteenth century gentlemen’s club. Now he’s at it again — same old idea, new production.
Michael Levine’s set is a magnificent large clubroom with ladies in elegant dresses and men in white tie, including the assassin Sparafucile. His sister Maddalena, like everyone else, makes an appearance in Act I, and Rigoletto’s housekeeper Giovanna plays a continuous role as a sort of sinister procuress for the Duke. A dancer portrays Count Monterone’s daughter and an alter ego to Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda, so there are multiple threads being played here, but the main singers came through unscathed.
Quinn Kelsey was a superb Rigoletto, passionate in his overwhelming sadness, lightened only by the existence of his beloved daughter Gilda. From his first full aria comparing his tongue with Sparafucile’s dagger, to his final moments of horror, Kelsey gave a heart rending portrayal of this angry hunchback who lives by his wits and is destroyed by his thirst for vengeance. Anna Christy as Gilda sang beautifully, her coloratura an inherent part of her character as opposed to ornamentation, and she showed a lovely naiveté in so far as the production allowed it. Excellent singing too from other cast members, particularly Peter Rose as a deep and dark voiced Sparafucile, and Barry Banks as an obnoxious little Duke with his bold high tenor voice. Fine music direction by the very capable Graeme Jenkins in the orchestra pit, and the chorus were excellent as usual, but the production …
The director showed an inclination to go over the top, particularly in Act II. When the Duke takes his pleasure with Gilda, his henchmen all crowd round to watch, and Marullo doesn’t just show disdain for Rigoletto but knocks him over and spits on him, which doesn’t quite make sense of Rigoletto’s subsequent pleading. Monterone is tied to a chair before being strung up to hang from a noose, and all this in a Mantuan nineteenth century club, where at one point the gentlemen sit calmly reading the Gazzetta di Mantova. Christopher Alden’s reading of the nineteenth seems rather extreme, and in a brief programme essay he refers to “the patriarchal nineteenth-century male whose power is built on the subjugation of women”, but I recall that this Canadian director also wanted to give us a history lesson in his over-elaborate production of Fledermaus, so no surprises in this respect.
There were intriguing moments, particularly the storm heard in quadraphonic sound before the start of Act III, the entrance of the black-veiled abductors in Act I, and the allusion to the movie American Beauty in the final scene. Lighting design was by the very capable Duane Schuler, and though most successful lighting is the type you don’t notice, this, like much else, was rather in your face, and the cold light from behind as Gilda walked away to join her mother in the hereafter may have been effective, but left me cold. However, Anna Christy as a vulnerable Gilda, and Quinn Kelsey as a hugely powerful Rigoletto, were wonderful.
There are nine further performances, ending on March 12 — for details click here.