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Threateningly Traditional

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
10/11/2010 -  & 14*, 16, 19, 21, 23, 27, 30, November 2, 4, 6, 2010
Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto
Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Rigoletto), Wookyung Kim (Duke of Mantua), Patrizia Ciofi (Gilda), Daniela Innamorati (Maddalena), Raymond Aceto (Sparafucile), Michael Druiett (Monterone), ZhengZhong Zhou (Marullo), Lukas Jakobski (Count Ceprano), Elizabeth Sikora (Giovanna), Iain Paton (Matteo Borsa), Andrea Hazell (Page), Nigel Cliffe (Court Usher)
Orchestra and chorus of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Dan Ettinger (conductor)
David McVicar (director), Leah Hausman (revival director), Michael Vale (set designer), Tanya McCallin (costume designer)

D. Hvorostovsky (© Johann Persson/courtesy of ROH)

Continuing a worryingly conservative opening season of revivals, Covent Garden plays its safest card yet, with another revival of David McVicar's Rigoletto. And who can blame them? McVicar's superb take on Verdi's middle-period crowd pleaser is, for want of a better term, “inspired fidelity”. Unlike Jonathan Miller's witty, if now elderly, 1950s Mafia production, McVicar argues a spirited, period-dress case for the libretto's essential darkness. I am inclined to agree with him; although so often regarded as two hours of jaunty melodies, love-sick damsels, caddish dukes and anguished fathers, the work is so much sicker than that. First seen in 2001, McVicar's production was one of the first to really mine in to that morbid humour, inherent in Piave's libretto. His portrayal of the duke and his court as some hedonist, spoilt clique of misogynist sociopaths wasn't some whim or concept, but instead a sober eyed view of the opera's narrative. The topless orgy of the opening scene may have shocked some on its first outing but what else is the duke doing with the Countess Ceprano? Like me, McVicar clearly feels that whiff of Tarantino about the casual violence. Rigoletto may be another of Verdi's many father-daughter studies, but it is unique for its gallows humour, not just in the libretto but also in the music; those sly, feline cellos in that hilariously conversational duet between Rigoletto and, softly spoken assassin for hire, Sparafucile, come from a composer with a sardonic leer on his face.

But try telling that to most Verdi singers. This was a revival that, for better or worse, showed what Verdi singing used to be like (the arias, the arias; think only about the arias!)leaving mainly the chorus and the superbly sketched minor characters fully in tune with McVicar's cesspit of 16th century morality. The triumph/problem is Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role. There is no one else who sings with such a gorgeous, trufflely-rich tone, (in remarkably good condition after twenty or so years of international fame) and for those eager to hear what a traditional Verdi baritone sounds like, he is your go-to man. Yet, that sound never varies, even when the text screams out for some introspection or dynamic contrast. For many this is the pinnacle of vocal glory, but I myself find it all a bit monochrome and static. That is personal taste but a more obvious side effect of Hvorostovsky's vocal resplendence is not to do anything to disturb it, like maybe keeping in time to the orchestra or, say, acting. Mercifully as the hunchbacked jester, he is forced into some sort of characterisation, especially as McVicar has him beetle about on two crutches, but it all looks rather dutiful for Hvorostovsky. Just watch him search outside for intruders when he hears a noise at his dingy house; he looks like somebody star-gazing.

Similarly blank dramatically was Wookyung Kim as Rigoletto's seedy employer. He is a new name to me and a curious singer. The duke's three big arias were all beautifully sung and crisp of diction and his bright, neat and flexible voice was ideal for the part but he went awry in ensembles. I honestly thought he missed an entry during Monterone's curse scene, otherwise it sounded like he was marking. Maybe he had an off night but the impression was of a gifted tenor saving himself for the big tunes.

The star of the night was Patrizia Ciofi, despite being given one of opera's most thankless roles. Yet, such was Ciofi's approach musically that even her long winded aria “Caro nome” didn't seem insipid. Her runs and trills are not the sweetest but rather than fluff them, she imbues the coloratura with such dramatic edge, you wish she had more to do. Interestingly, McVicar has less to say about Gilda than the men, leaving her to be the traditional drip in a white dress. I did, though, love her bleak insistence that she loves the duke, even after being kidnapped and semi-raped. The simple line “Io l'amo”, usually delivered wiltingly, was here a chilling moment of defiance to her father.

It will be very interesting to see how the show changes when Paolo Gavanelli (the original Rigoletto in 2001) and Ekaterina Sadovinikova as Gilda take over later in the run. Remaining constant in the casting is Raymond Aceto's Sparafucile, in magnificent voice and funny and convincing as both the polite serial killer and henpecked brother. His siren sister was lusciously sung and acted by the young Italian mezzo, Daniela Innamorati. I was not bowled over by Dan Ettinger's conducting; speeds were brisk and climaxes suitably loud but there were some brass slips and a firmer hand is needed keeping the starrier voices in sync with the pit.

As with all revivals, I cast a beady eye over the technical side, to see how it has aged. It is still lit like some Caravaggio painting but is there really no way of speeding up the set changes on this simple one set revolve? At least bring the tabs in, while we twiddle our thumbs, as Rigoletto is a fat free piece that doesn't like to be kept waiting. From my circle seat I also spotted Ciofi entering the set from upstage, when it might have been better to have her set in Rigoletto's house earlier. Still, this staging has at least another twenty years of life, in my opinion, and it makes for a telling compare and contrast with Miller's classic one next door.

Casting reservations aside, there is little one could do to ruin this terrific production where McVicar prods the sores and pustules of human behaviour. This is the world where an infatuated virgin bleeds to death in a sack, deflowered and with a sword through the heart. Her murderer, a principled assassin who just this once decides to deceive his employer, leaves the real baddie, the duke, happy and alive, singing his anthem of female infidelity. The Covent Garden audience left with a very unpleasant, sweaty taste in the mouth; goodness evaporates, paternal love turns to bloody betrayal and, in this foul smelling, male dominated court of Mantua, Gilda was just another good screw. I loved it.

Barnaby Rayfield



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