Canadian Opera Company: Verdi’s Rigoletto. Directed by Christopher Alden. Stephen Lord, conductor. At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts through Feb. 23. coc.ca
Based on statistics of opera performances the last five seasons worldwide, Rigoletto is ranked No. 10 in popularity as measured by the number of performances (2,285). It’s Verdi’s second most popular opera by the same criterion, with La traviata taking top spot. Incidentally, Rigoletto was the very first opera staged in the history of the Canadian Opera Company, in its first season, on Feb. 3, 1950!
Since then, the COC has revived the Verdi warhorse some twelve times, roughly every six seasons, making it one of the most frequently performed opera at the COC. It’s easy to see why. An archetypal Italian grand opera, with a plot of love, lust, filial piety, revenge and death, not to mention a sublime Verdi score with the composer at his most melodically inspired – that pretty much sums it up. And when you have great voices for the principals, this piece is virtually an audience magnet.
The Christopher Alden production in its original form was built and staged at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2000. The current version is a COC co-production with English National Opera, it was premiered locally in the fall of 2011, and this revival is its second outing. Toronto opera audiences should be very familiar with the works of the Alden Brothers. They are on the forefront of the new wave of dramaturgy, one that re-thinks and re-imagines the standard repertoire. I haven’t done a systematic count, but there are likely a half-dozen productions directed by them at the COC over the years. Some were more successful than others, at least from the audience’s perspective.
For some reason, Rigoletto is prime fodder for the Regieoper treatment. The Jonathan Miller production for the ENO relocated it to a Mafioso-ridden Little Italy in New York. It caused quite a sensation in its premiere in the ‘80s. The current Met production, by Michael Mayer and premiered in 2013, is set in Las Vegas. But most infamous of all was the Doris Dorrie production for Munich Opera a dozen years ago, with characters straight out of Planet of the Apes! It didn’t last long, by the way. Compared to this, the COC co-production is tame.
Alden has time and place-shifted it from the Renaissance to 19th century Victorian England. The single-unit set, sumptuous if immovable, is a Victorian gentlemen’s club, more specifically “the gaming room” where the men retire after dinner to drink, smoke, and play their games of dominance and subjugation of women. In Alden’s vision, Rigoletto is a powerful social and political commentary on class, privilege, and inequality.
I don’t disagree with Alden’s take on the piece, on the sins of a patriarchal society. As Anna Christy said in her interview, it’s a society where women are used as currency. Rigoletto is a work with a dark soul – there are no likable characters in the whole opera, and you can even argue that Gilda’s included. What I do have problems with is the storytelling of this production, particularly the technical execution of it, hampered by the rigid, immovable, single-unit set used for all scenes, as designed by Michael Levine.
This approach in stage design is the trend, especially in Europe. Projections and turntables are less commonly used. The Munich Pelleas I saw is set in a hotel lobby. Similarly, Stuttgart Opera’s Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito place their Un ballo in maschera in a hotel lounge/lobby/bar, a show imported by the COC to very mixed reviews. The Tchernikov Don Giovanni from Madrid, also seen in Toronto, is set in the Commendatore’s study. These inflexible designs obfuscate the story-telling.
Given that Rigoletto requires major scene changes as dictated by the story, a “one size fits all” approach, even if it’s clever, is problematic. The stage is so full of people it’s hard to tell who is singing at any given moment. The use of a ladder, the hanging of Monterone, the use of a curtain (pulled mostly by Giovanna), taped sounds of thunderclaps to disguise stage noise during scene changes are imperfect solutions. A lot of the time, the characters are alone even when they are singing a duet, very far from each other, perhaps deliberately to signify their isolation.
The saving grace of this revival is musical. Seen on opening night, top honours were shared by American tenor Stephen Costello (Duke) and British baritone Roland Wood (Rigoletto). Costello sounded great, an impressive display of rich tone and resplendent top. He does tend to “scoop” a lot, it’s arguably not a major issue. Less ideal was the difference in the sizes of his voice and that of American soprano Anna Christy. In their duet, he overpowered her. Christy was reportedly suffering from a cold. She sang nicely, but was rather careful at the top, where the extreme high notes were produced with noticeable effort. Her soft, warm girlish soprano and diminutive size underscores the vulnerability of Gilda,
Roland Wood, a memorable Renato in the COC Ballo a few years ago, was a remarkable Rigoletto. His rich and imposing Verdi baritone is born to sing Rigoletto and he sounded great, after the initial minutes of warming up. Canadian mezzo Carolyn Sproule made an auspicious COC debut as Maddalena. Georgian bass Goderdzi Janelidze, also making his Company debut, has just the perfectly dark, menacing sound for a scary Sparafucile. Canadian bass Robert Pomakov repeated his excellent Monterone, breathing fire and brimstone in his few moments to shine.
The COC Chorus and supernumeraries, particularly the men, are very important in this show due to its complicated staging, and they did an outstanding job. American conductor Stephen Lord returned to the Company and led the orchestra in an idiomatic, no-nonsense if somewhat loud reading of the score. At the end of the day, Rigoletto stands or falls by its musical values, and this one is a winner.
Note: In an earlier version of this article, it incorrectly stated that the production originated in the English National Opera.