Rigoletto Giuseppe Verdi: Scottish Opera
**** (4 stars)
Rigoletto is the hunch-backed jester who serves the Duke of Mantua, assisting this handsome womaniser in his seductions, and laughing at the pain suffered by the distraught parents of the young women he’s pursued, bedded and discarded. As the opera begins, the court is mocking the distraught Monterone, whose daughter is the Duke’s latest victim: Monterone curses Rigoletto for his part in the seduction.
Rigoletto has a daughter of his own, Gilda, whom he keeps hidden from everyone at the court: unbeknown to him, the Duke has found her. Rigoletto is tricked into being part of the group who abduct Gilda and take her to the Duke’s palace: when he, weeping, tries to find his daughter, he is mocked. Rigoletto decides to take a contract out on the Duke, and hires the assassin Sparafucile to kill him. Sparafucile’s sister, Maddalena, lures the Duke to their mountain hideout, but begs her brother to spare his life: he agrees – if another victim shows up in the dreadful storm that is now raging. Gilda, determined to save his life even though she has been betrayed by him, appears disguised as a boy and is stabbed. When Rigoletto returns to gloat over the Duke’s body, he discovers to his horror that Gilda has been killed – Monterone’s curse has been fulfilled.
This was a very dark production, both in feel and in design. Almost everyone is in unrelieved black or white, the only splashes of colour being Rigoletto’s sparkly green jacket, Maddalena’s scarlet frock, and the blood on Gilda’s shirt – maybe intending to imply that everyone sees things in terms of black and white? To me the only really honest person on stage is Sparafucile: he may be a killer, but he is an honest one, true to his bargain and outraged when his sister suggests that he kill Rigoletto, who is paying him, rather than the intended victim, the Duke.
The production emphasises the objectification of women through clever use of mannequins. In act one, the Duke’s followers are seen dancing with women in lovely frocks – it’s only later that you realise they are dancing with mannequins, not live human beings. In act two the Duke is surrounded by discarded and broken mannequins: he sings earnestly to one of his desperation that Gilda has been taken from him – but when to his delight she is presented to him by his followers who have abducted her, he uses her as he has all his other women. Gilda is surrounded by broken and abandoned bodies as she haltingly tells her father her short and pitiful story. In act 3 Rigoletto opens the sack supposedly containing the Duke’s body, only to find not Gilda’s body but yet another mannequin – does Gilda mean any more to her father than she did to the Duke?
The lighting design made excellent use of shadows, underlining the menace that runs throughout the plot, and using harsh daylight for the hideous disclosure of Gilda’s rape. The skewed cabin that served as Gilda’s prison emphasised her confinement which failed to protect her from its invasion by the carnival-masked abductors. Sparafucile’s hut, equally confining, had the red ladder used in the abduction as the way for the Duke to escape Rigoletto’s plot…
The singing was excellent, but I was largely unmoved by any of the characters – most of them are unlovable people with whom I’m unable to sympathise. The Duke is a womanising bastard, Rigoletto is a boiling cauldron of spite and venom who delights in others’ misfortunes, and Gilda somehow didn’t touch my heart. The staging rarely allowed characters to sing to each other – Gilda and her father sang to each other’s backs, the Duke and Gilda rarely looked at each other. Rigoletto’s twisted delight in tormenting others was cleverly portrayed but I had no sympathy for him then or when he professed to love his daughter above everything – did he really love her, or did he love the symbol she represented, the only thing remaining to remind him of his dead wife? Throughout the production women were merely commodities, to be bought, sold, and discarded.
The voices were lovely, and the technique sound. Adam Smith, making his Scottish Opera début, was excellent as the heartless womaniser, though he was rather too fond of interpolating the high Cs that Verdi didn’t write… Greek baritone Aris Agilis, also débuting here, gave a splendidly twisted account of the duke’s jester, while Norwegian soprano Lina Johnson, also making her first appearance for Scottish Opera, navigated her complex music with ease but reminded me rather too much of Sandi Toksvig with a long plait. Sioned Gwen Davies, a former Scottish Opera Emerging Artist, followed up her memorable Stewardess in Jonathan Dove’s Flight by making the most of her short time on stage as the red-dressed temptress Maddalena. For me, though, the palm goes to David Shipley, another Scottish Opera debutant, with his beautifully sung and honestly acted Sparafucile.
It was a good but harsh production. The Glasgow audience loved it and were warmly enthusiastic with their applause.
Rigoletto Giuseppe Verdi, Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal Run Ended Tour continues to Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Inverness
Review by Mary Woodward