(Credit: (vs) ROH 2021. Ellie Kurttz)
Antonio Pappano has been at the Royal Opera House for almost two decades, but has never conducted âRigolettoâ, the cornerstone of the repertoire. It would be his first performance of the work – and the foreground of the 2021-22 season at the Royal Opera.
Aanother first for Oliver Mears, artistic director of the ROH, who is finally getting his feet wet with his own production after the start of his tenure in 2017. His “Rigoletto” replaces the faithful David McVicar show – a grimy and dismal affair whose he opening orgy ran out of steam a few years ago and the whole squeaked audibly.
Manipulative like paint
The real Duke of Mantua was a patron of the arts – look for him in one of the ROH boxes today – and Mears’ production makes him the starting point. The main character of the opera shares something with the women used and thrown away by the Duke – their denial of the right to vote comes from the way they please the eyes. Art is central to Mears’ opera vision. The curtain rises, after the fatal and backlit opening of Verdi, on a dazzling staging – a real painting of the âMartyrdom of Saint Matthewâ by Caravaggio. It turns out the Duke is in the photo and wears a skull with golden horns; the saint takes the place of Monterone’s daughter, pregnant but dressed in virgin white.
The feast takes place under Titian’s âVenus of Urbinoâ; he is replaced prominently in the second half by his “Abduction of Europe”, lingering above the room where the Duke rapes Gilda. (Act 1’s climactic revelation sees it replaced by a grotesque wooden doll, like something from Otto Dix or Sarah Lucas). Art shapes life with such cruelty in this âRigoletto:â to quote Brillat-Savarin, you are what you value – monstrously. The dark lighting of Fabiana Piccioli emphasizes the aesthetic beats, capturing the chiaroscuro of the defiled world of Caravaggio.
People are as easy to handle as painting. The Duke intimidates the costumed women lined up in the first scene. The characters adopt the grandiose and bizarre gestures of the very works he loves. Monterone suffers from a spectacular and gruesome eye tearout, then is bathed in light, dry ice; Marullo and Ceprano stage a queer-coded silent show re-enacting Gilda’s kidnapping in act two (possibly a long-term play about the sexually complex portrayal of Caravaggio).
In the first scene, Renaissance-chic costumes give way to modern clothing. Ilona Karas’ costumes become more sober and elegant as the show progresses: an austere homburg and coat for Rigoletto; a chaste but sensual white change for Gilda; the only dull note was the duke’s jacket in act three, which made him look a bit small, rather hampering his priapic energies.
The paintings give way – as does Sparafucile’s Inn, crawling somewhat indiscreetly off the stage – in the final scene of water and clouds (the latter erupt quite dramatically with real rain during climate storm.) A muddy and troubled world lies behind the Duke’s realm of appearance sculptures – but one through which light shines, one cleansed – perhaps – by the storm and Gilda’s sacrifice. Act two takes place under the light cup of Gilda’s bedroom on a bare stage, colored with decaying ocher and shadow, like the surface of a dirty oil painting. Simon Lima Holdsworth’s design pushes, for the most part, the right tone-on-tone buttons.
The first half is certainly quite atmospheric, and the dominant theme is promising, although it seems more and more incidental as the show progresses. Relative parsimony meant both cold and evocation.
However, there were some blockages that were dramatically inconvenient – even a bit dated (do tenors really need to kneel down on their knees these days atop the Duke’s Act 3 tune?). so could hardly watch the duke seduce Maddalena; the duke went through two engravings of paintings that he seems to already own in act two – one wonders why. Such moments will surely be evened out in the revival – next February – that will help pump thematic and emotional blood into the ends of the series.
Mears and Pappano had a scintillating cast to back them up. With a few swings, they delivered at the highest level. Carlos Ãlvarez still delivers a powerful baritone with depth and definition all the way, although he took a more low-key approach throughout the evening, avoiding some of the interpolated high notes; those he chose – the top G of the “Cortigiani” streak – were certainly delighted.
Even though he drifted a bit flat at times, his performance found his touching feet in the grand pleading legato that defines the role so much. This was all the more true as he begged Marullo – desperately – for mercy in act two, crawling across the stage on his knees. The very last notes of the opera were less histrionic than usual, which deprived the climax of its musical punch, but elsewhere Ãlvarez brought a cared and broken quality to this most Lear role.
Lisetta Oropesa remains one of the main lyric coloratures in activity today. There is richness and woody color in its lower register – reminiscent of Callas – which gives the character a power and gravity that scintillating twitter approaches exclude. His “Caro nome” received a thunderous reception, and most of the passages and high notes shone – especially this trill – although the intonation at the top has wavered somewhat. Most exciting was the air climax, so to speak, which saw her lay down on the bed and fondle herself – a great character moment for someone who can turn out, too often, to be so boring and godly. . His act two lamentation was painfully lyrical.
Liparit Avetisyan made a stellar impression as Duke. He is a flexible and agile tenor that shows no tensions or cracks (despite a slightly overcooked top note in “La donna Ã¨ mobile â), and has a natural and inviting approach to line and phrasing.
“Questa o quella” had a delicious verve, naughty as it was when directed at Monterone’s daughter; his second act âAmong veder the lagrimeâ was captivating, a complex and compelling image of a manipulator and a thug who nonetheless believes in his own illusions, sung with commitment and richness. He’s a bastard, but not inhuman. Another highlight was her Act One duet with Gilda d’Oropesa.
Brindley Sherratt gifted a Flintlock Sparafucile, probing the depths of his low F without sweating (singing it while walking off stage always impresses).
Blaise Malaba and Dominic Sedgwick played the roles of Ceprano and Marullo respectively; Ramona Zaharia’s Madalenna played well the enamored seductress, with a velvety purr that held up well to the quartet. Eric Greene’s Monterone sounded oddly metallic and a bit washed out lower down, but was a compelling dramatic presence nonetheless.
Special mention must go to the men of the ROH Chorus, whose energy and precision have shown them to be model choristers: crisp consonants placed long before time, monumental sound in great climaxes, strange echoes in the act three storm. Their “Zitti, zitti” at the end of the first act was an exact conspiracy.
Antonio Pappano kept his powder dry on this opera for many years. But he and the orchestra unleashed music of brilliant rhythmic energy and sculpted detail, explosive, searing cries of pain from the strings in the poised opening of the oboe solo in act two.
The real warmth came from the pit and the vocals – although this is a promising and insightful nonetheless production.