Rigoletto, ENO, English National Opera, September 2009

rigoletto-small

This Jonathan Miller production, revived many times in the past 27 years, sets the action in a Mafia crime family of the 1950s. It’s an interesting take on a story whose origin is Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse. Written in 1832 in the heady aftermath of the 1830 revolution that brought Louis-Philippe to power as the ‘citizen king’ of France, the title of the original play and its attitude to royalty were unacceptable in other parts of Europe. Kings do not ‘amuse themselves’ in this way and it was immediately banned elsewhere. When Verdi came to write his opera, in the years following the 1848 revolutions across Europe, he replaced the king by the Duke of Mantua but the censors still had concerns, not only about the portrayal of the ‘king’ but also the hunchbacked jester whose outward appearance reflected his corrupt nature and nasty streak while he remained a devoted father to his daughter Gilda. The concept of hedonistic, anti-social autocrats and their supporters was a far cry from the Western ideals of governance, but is not a million miles from crime syndicates that command murders when it suits them, yet treat their own with care and concern. With this in mind, Jonathan Miller’s production makes great sense, and the designs by Patrick Robertson and Rosemary Vercoe, with clever lighting originally designed by Robert Bryan, give an air of authenticity to the drama.

The jester, named Triboulet in Hugo’s play, becomes Rigoletto in the opera, and is one of Verdi’s great creations, sung here by Anthony Michaels-Moore, who played him with enormous sensitivity. His sneeringly lugubrious stage presence and lyrical singing gave just the right sense of conflict to this Lear-like character, and with Katherine White portraying Gilda’s vulnerability so well, these two became the centre point of the opera. The ‘duke’ was strongly sung and acted by the young Michael Fabiano, one of the six winners in the recent Metropolitan Opera competition, who seems to have just the right devil-may-care attitude for the ‘duke’. The cast balanced one another well, particularly with Brindley Sherratt as a darkly sinister Sparafucile, whose bass voice oozed menacing integrity — I was reminded of his excellent performance as Pimen in Boris Godunov last November. His sister Maddalena was also well sung and portrayed by Madeleine Shaw, but the lacklustre conducting of Stephen Lord was a disappointment. He seemed to have good control of the orchestra, and raised the tempo at significant points, but I didn’t feel the music breathed with the vitality of the plot.

In a recent BBC Radio interview, Jonathan Miller inveighed against the ‘concepts’ that some German directors bring to their opera productions. I agreed instantly, but the concept of a ‘concept’ is not well-defined, and I’d prefer to think of the opera itself inhabiting a domain, which each production represents in its own way. That Miller’s production of Rigoletto has lasted 27 years in the repertory of the ENO is evidence that its representation is a great success. What goes wrong with some German productions — and the Meistersinger and Tristan I saw recently in Bayreuth are cases in point — is that rather than represent the domain in which the opera lives, they transport it to a box that insulates it from all or part of its natural domain. Jonathan Miller doesn’t do this — he stays true to the original, giving us a way to understand and appreciate it.

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