The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
09/29/2011 - and September 30*, October 2, 5, 8, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 20, 22, 2011
Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto
Quinn Kelsey*/Lester Lynch* (Rigoletto), Ekaterina Sadovnikova*/Simone Osborne* (Gilda), Dmitiri Pittas*/David Lomelí* (The Duke of Mantua), Phillip Ens (Sparafucile), Kandall Gladen (Maddalena), Robert Pomakov (Count Monterone), Alain Coulombe (Count Ceprano), Mireille Asselin (Countess Ceprano), Megan Latham (Giovanna), Adrian Kramer (Marullo), John Kriter (Borsa), Jacqueline Woodley (A Page), Neil Craighead (An Usher)
The Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorus Master), The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Johannes Dubus*/Derek Bate (Conductor)
Christopher Alden (Director), Michael Levine (Set and Costume Designer), Duane Schuler (Lighting Designer)
Q. Kelsey & E. Sadovnikova (© Michael Cooper)
No matter how many times you’ve seen Rigoletto, you have probably not taken much notice of Giovanna, usually described as Gilda’s nurse. She has a few lines in the second scene of the opera, when Rigoletto wants to be reassured that his daughter is kept sequestered except to go to church. It turns out that Giovanna has noticed the agreeable young man who is smitten with Gilda, and is complicit in keeping this a secret from the over-protective father.
Director Christopher Alden has used this vignette to construct the entire production of the opera with Giovanna at the centre of the action and with a focus (spelled out in his Director’s Notes) on the subjugation of women. Right at the beginning a black-clad matron opens the curtains for us; this turns out to be Giovanna. In the scene where she usually makes her single brief appearance we see Rigoletto questioning her brutally about Gilda; revenge for this rough treatment spurs her on to wreak revenge. We also see that she is besotted with the duke. While he is in the Rigoletto home, she lovingly spoon-feeds him the same meal she had prepared for the household. He kisses her and she gives a squeal of ecstasy and literally lets down her hair. Later, while Gilda sings Caro nome, Giovanna removes Gilda’s dress, thus preparing her for her abduction and ravishment. When the duke is seen with his couriers, there is Giovanna adoringly serving him coffee. In the final act, during the great quartet, Giovanna acts as a procuress by removing Maddalena’s gown while the duke praises her beauty.
One of the many striking stage pictures occurs at the finale of the trio in the final act, during which Maddalena has convinced her brother to murder someone else instead of the duke, and Gilda vows to be the victim. A storm rages and lights flash - a powerful scene indeed - but it is undercut by Giovanna’s triumphant cackle, the idea being that she has engineered it all: not only saving the duke but leading to the death of Gilda, all to spite Rigoletto.
In the end Giovanna's revenge for her subjugation by Rigoletto results in the death of another woman - and scot free is the duke, who subjugates everyone.
Needless to say, all this byplay involving Giovanna is distracting. Rigoletto is a challenge to stage, what with all the eavesdropping that goes on. A “realistic” staging stretches credulity beyond the breaking point. The production team doesn’t even try. The unit set (very handsome) depicts a 19th-century men’s club, the idea being that Verdi was making a comment about male attitudes of his own day, not just of the Renaissance era. Alden doesn’t even try to stage the abduction scene realistically - in many ways the approach is to stage the whole show as Rigoletto’s feverish nightmare.
The duke's courtiers (or rather, fellow club members) are directed to act naturalistically at times and non-realistically at other times - for example, when the duke is singing one of his lovely “in-love-with-love” arias, they scatter rose petals around him. The rose petals reappear when Rigoletto opens the sack containing his dying daughter. Monterone’s traduced daughter wanders zombie-like through some scenes. The duke ravishes Gilda on the sofa surrounded by his eagerly voyeuristic club fellows. Later, Monterone (usually led off stage to his execution) is lynched right in the club room. One can only imagine the befuddlement of any audience member who hasn’t seen the work before.
It’s a special shame that the staging distracts from the strong musical and vocal values of the production. Both casts are very strong. (This is COC General Director Alexander Neef’s first season planned by him since he took over in 2008. If the casting of the two season openers, Rigoletto and Iphigénie en Tauride, is any indicator we are in for very good times.) Each performer is right for the role and all seem to be on the cusp of solid, even stellar, careers.
Quinn Kelsey and Lester Lynch are both built like linebackers and each attacks the title role vehemently. Mr Kelsey puts more variety of expression into the role while Mr Lynch’s approach is craggier (and very effective).
Ekaterina Sadovnikova has an edge of experience over Simone Osborne (still a member of the COC Ensemble Studio), but Ms Osborne’s voice has a welcome degree of sweetness. Dmitiri Pittas’s voice is a bit more evenly produced (bottom-to-top) than David Lomelí’s, but the latter has a more freely produced top, a big advantage in this role. They both get to sing major sections of the role when standing on a piece of furniture, a staging gambit that serves to emphasize the character’s carefree bravura. On opening night however a bit of staging brought forth giggles: while singing his ardent Parmi veder le lagrime the duke seemed to be achieving a passionate attachment with a cushion. Happily this was dropped by the second performance.
The roles of Sparfucile and Maddalena are on the brief side, but each has to match the three lead roles in ensembles. Phillip Ens is an oily-voiced Sparafucile and Kendall Gladen is a femme fatale extraordinaire as Maddalena.
COC Music Director Joheannes Dubus does a fine job yet again. It must be very tricky keeping the chorus together when its members are disbursed throughout the large stage area. Orchestra and chorus (men only this time) are up to their usual high standard.
It will be interesting to know if there is any re-thinking of the staging when it is performed by its co-producer, the English National Opera. (The production is “based on” a Lyric Opera of Chicago production of 2000.)
Christopher Alden’s other production for the COC is Der fliegende Holländer in a non-realistic, effectively creepy production. It’s a pity that his Rigoletto veers off course in such an exasperating manner. The company’s previous production of the work, unveiled in 1992 with expressionist designs by George Tsypin (and repeated in 1996 and 2004) was also non-naturalistic, but worked a good deal better.