The Metropolitan Opera’s free feed gave us a lovely trip down memory lane last week, with a 1981 Rigoletto starring Louis Quilico, Luciano Pavarotti and Christiane Eda-Pierre.
I can’t be the only one who watched, remembering the times Quilico sang the role in Toronto, before he had opportunities to sing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The close-ups in the Met broadcast show us a larger than life interpretation that might seem to lack subtlety: except that this is what Quilico was aiming for in his interpretation. I saw his Iago in New York, heard his Golaud in a radio broadcast. I was proud as a Canadian, but as an opera lover, I admired his magnificent voice.
It’s worth thinking about the word “melodrama” and what it implies. I believe Giuseppi Verdi’s great middle period operas are truly melodramatic, and are best approached by interpreters who understand the implications. In melodrama the protagonists are powerless against forces humanity cannot withstand, such as nature or God or war. We surrender to our fate if we believe that we have no agency or control.
La traviata is not an opera about a woman who has power in her life; Violetta faces an illness and the horror implicit in her promise to separate from the man she loves. Il trovatore is a series of old stories told by the fire, recalling a mother accidentally killing her own child, brothers who never know who they really are, while the chorus sings miserere. And Rigoletto is the tale of a father’s curse and an all-powerful Duke. Directors may seek to populate the stage with modern naturalist actors, but that tendency resists the natural construction of these works.
The portrayal Quilico used to make on the O’Keefe Centre stage in Toronto tended to be more over the top than the restraint he displayed in the 1981 Met production, directed by John Dexter. In the scene where the courtiers trick him into helping abduct his own daughter, the moments of panic & horror that end the scene used to include improvised shouts of “Gilda…! Gilda!” While none of this is explicitly notated in the score, it’s compelling theatre and quite possibly as authentic as any interpolated high notes that we’ve come to expect. And it was very powerful to watch.
Quilico gave us a remarkable range of colours in the broadcast, a lovely reminder of one of the greatest baritone voices in history. We first meet him as the grotesque jester of the first scene, roughly teasing the courtiers and mocking the grief of Monterone, a father outraged by his daughter’s seduction. We may think of the curse he lays on Rigoletto’s head as a wooden device of melodrama: yet it perfectly sets up the characters’ surrender to the inevitability of their fate.
We are not in a realm of subtlety. The next scene opens with the first of a series of introspective questions Rigoletto asks himself, pondering the curse. He meets Sparafucile, an assassin who offers his services to Rigoletto, who –after refusing the killer’s offer—notices the similarities between the rapier thrusts of the killer & his own dangerous words, that have caused the curse. But Quilico’s voice is powerful & edgy in his self-criticism.
The next scene shows us a third colour of Quilico’s portrayal that we may not have expected, as he meets his daughter Gilda. There is a softer sound in this duet, that is especially sweet in the recollection of Gilda’s mother, the one person who really loved him, and now is dead & gone. The bel canto we hear in this scene is the softest gentlest part of Rigoletto, that Quilico now brings forth.
The portrayal uses these three colours, namely a deliberately ugly sound when playing up the grotesque hunchback, an angrier brilliant sound, as when dreaming of his possible vengeance, and the tender bel canto when thinking of the past with his daughter.
And then there’s Pavarotti, who as far as I can tell was never sharp or flat, his sound produced so beautifully as to be the ideal of perfection, the way any tenor dreams of singing the role. The odd thing about this performance is the one note that Pavarotti fluffed in the “addio addio” duet with Gilda. If the reports I’ve heard can be trusted, the reason this Rigoletto was not made available sooner was because Pavarotti was so upset about this high note, a D-flat that he missed totally. We see him go upstage of the soprano immediately afterwards, as though he was humiliated and wanted to hide his face. If the story I heard is correct his humiliation led him or his management to suppress this broadcast even though it was the only Met broadcast showing us Quilico’s interpretation. Please note, I really like Pavarotti & his singing, but this story only underlines what we’re missing here in Canada, namely our own video recordings & broadcasts.
Yes we were lucky to hear Quilico in his prime here in Toronto, to hear brighter colours up top, whereas the older Quilico had darkened the sound, changing the resonance from what it had once been. Live performance, sigh, it’s only a memory right now in this viral hiatus. While one can see a recorded performance from the Met every night, while we recently saw the Zambello Ring Cycle from the San Francisco Opera, all we have are memories of productions in this country. Alexander Neef’s time with the Canadian Opera Company included some remarkable productions, that may linger in the mind but are otherwise gone.
I’m hopeful that the recent announcement of technological upgrades for the Four Seasons Centre will enable the COC to capture & share the magic. Wouldn’t it be great if the CBC got into the act, making the Canadian Opera Company truly Canadian?