I saw the new Canadian Opera Company production of Rigoletto directed by Christopher Alden tonight. It makes a nice companion to the Robert Carsen Iphigenia in Tauris that premiered last week to such acclaim. Both productions are like close analyses of each opera, taking us into worlds full of nastiness, while illuminating the characters and their predicament in startling new ways.
When a director modernizes an opera there are usually tradeoffs. On the one hand, those who show up expecting to see the work done a particular way—often the most conservative members of the audience—will likely be upset given that the changes in the work will deny them their usual experience. On the other hand the changes may remedy some of the objections people have concerning the work in question.
I’d never really noticed just how ugly Iphigenia’s Tauris actually was until Carsen held up a mirror to that ancient world. While Carsen brought great clarity to that production, and coaxed fabulous performances from his two stars, I came away disturbed by the horrific violence I saw onstage.
In contrast, Alden’s Rigoletto left me feeling much better than usual. Perhaps it’s because I know this work so well, having accompanied a sibling in the work literally for decades, wishing I could somehow manage to sing the Duke’s famous music even as I detest and loathe his character (grrrr boo hiss). When I used to go see Rigoletto in the era of Louis Quilico (one of the greatest Canadian singers of all time) I cried gallons even though there were parts of his portrayal that were silly in the extreme, moments that would make me roll my eyes. In spite of my resistance to his old-school approach, somewhere before the end of the first act I’d surrender, falling back in love with his version of the grotesque hunchback. Mesmerized, I’d still quibble with melodramatic touches throughout, rarely satisfied with the entire whole, bothered by leaden moments in several places, the implausibility of the Act II abduction, and other weak moments in the story. And somehow, I swear that every time, a little part of me would secretly hope that the giddy joy of “Si vendetta”, when Rigoletto vows to avenge his daughter, would bear fruit, that the detestable Duke would finally bite the dust. And just like Rigoletto himself, when I’d hear the Duke’s last act offstage reprise of the familiar tune of “La donna è mobile”, I’d know the despair that somehow the monster had escaped justice, again (!).
Aha, you’re probably thinking I am one of those conservative viewers, who arrives demanding a particular approach…!
But no. While I did have a few pangs watching Christopher Alden’s Rigoletto –which diverges in several ways from the usual scenario- I bought it, even before I read the director’s notes, which totally helped everything fall into place.
The stylized portrayal is helpful this time, mitigating rather than emphasizing the nastiness. As a result we are not really witnessing a tragedy, not watching Rigoletto struggle and almost escape his fate. The magical space where the action takes place is redemptive in the sense that no one is held responsible. This world is a colossal trap, and both Rigoletto & his daughter Gilda are caught by it. There’s no pathos, no sympathy when the hunchback sings his great third act aria; but watching the aria sung in front of an implacable group of courtiers (even Marullo is a jerk in this one, a stretch for Adrian Kramer by the way), our hearts are moved in a different way. And it works.
I found I wasn’t quibbling about performances because the characters were in this strange place where I was riveted by their surroundings, the fascinating reverberations of Alden’s reframing of the story, sometimes making actions more pathetic, sometimes bringing an odd sort of humour to the proceedings. Everything transpires in The Club: the place where the men go to carouse, where the Duke has his secret assignations, where Rigoletto goes to work, denying his humanity, and where ultimately the Duke is unassailable. His infernal good luck that saves him is somehow less objectionable when placed inside this charmed circle. I don’t feel quite so cheated, not so thwarted, as when the Duke escapes in a more naturalistic production.
If I do have a quibble –and I express it as a technicality because this did not hamper my enjoyment—it was in the overall level of the voices. Only Quinn Kelsey in the title role brought the appropriate Verdian voice to the production. As I’ve never seen a Rigoletto so capably impersonate a hunchback, a man whose acting overcame his obvious youth, I wonder if I was distracted by the stunning vocalism. Rationally he couldn’t have been Gilda’s father (he looks like her younger brother come to think of it): but who cares? He sang and acted superbly. The other performance of note was Philip Ens’ Sparafucile, the hired killer, channelling a weird mix of Johnny Winter and Paul Williams, except that this aging rockstar still has lots of voice.
The COC chorus and orchestra led by Johannes Debus were spectacular throughout, Debus taking some wonderfully lively tempi throughout.
Rigoletto continues at the Four Seasons Centre –with an alternate cast debuting Friday Sept 30th—until October 22nd.