Amazing performances highlight COC’s Rigoletto
By Andrew Wagner-Chazalon
Every great work of art shows different faces to different eras. Performers and directors reinterpret the work, plumbing its depths to find what it has to say to our time that is different from what it has said in the past.
Which raises the question: is Christopher Alden’s interpretation of Verdi’s Rigoletto an idea whose time has come?
The Canadian Opera Company production of Rigoletto opened at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on January 20th and runs until February 23rd, 2018. The other half of the winter season, Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, runs from February 7th to 24th.
This Rigoletto is a stunningly beautifully production, with incredible voices and superb musical direction by Stephen Lord. Soprano Anna Christy as Gilda has a voice that is light and effortless, the personification of innocence and loss. And Roland Wood’s Rigoletto is a marvel, alternately tormented and tormenting, conveying the full range of this complex character through vocal texture.
Stephen Costello sings the role of the Duke, bringing a tremendously cavalier insouciance to the role: he’s that most dangerous of creatures, an absolutely immoral villain who still charms everyone. When he tosses off the immortal Donne e mobile as if he hasn’t a care in the world, we can quite believe how people would continue to love and follow him, despite having seen him do dreadful things.
The rest of the cast and chorus are equally delightful. Goderdzi Janelidze is particularly wonderful as the assassin Sparafucile, a dark and menacing presence who is a joy to watch and listen to.
Together, they tell a story that is frustratingly relevant to the era of #MeToo and #SilentNoMore. Opening night was the evening of the International Women’s March; audiences arriving at the plush Four Seasons Centre stepped past piles of discarded placards demanding an end to sexism and patriarchy. Inside, they met a reminder that some things haven’t changed.
The opera tells the tale of a dissolute Duke who lives only to drink, gamble and fornicate. His jester, an embittered hunchback named Rigoletto, encourages the Duke as he selects women – sometimes the wives and daughters of his own courtiers – and uses them as sexual playthings before discarding them. Rigoletto’s secret, though, is that he has a daughter of his own, a teenage beauty named Gilda whom he keeps obsessively hidden, hoping to protect her from the sordid and brutal world that he inhabits.
The story was first told in a play by Victor Hugo which was so incendiary it was banned after just one performance and didn’t run again for 50 years. Twenty years later, Verdi adapted the story into an opera that required months of negotiations and adaptations before censors would allow it on stage; even then, it frequently played under different titles as it travelled to other towns, to prevent other censors from closing it.
It’s been a beloved part of the opera repertoire ever since. For many in the audience, this wasn’t even their first time seeing this particular production. The same interpretation (with different singers and musicians) has played in several other cities over the years, including in Toronto in 2011.
Bows and Boos
It has not been universally popular. Even on opening night this time around there were a few boos when Alden came to the stage for bows. (Opera directors, to be fair, sometimes view some booing as a sign of success, particularly for a controversial interpretation of a classic, which they know will not please traditionalists.)
Alden has set the piece in a 19th century gentleman’s club. The set by Michael Levine is extraordinary, an old master oil painting vision of dark wood and tall, coffered ceilings. Duane Schuler’s lighting is just as powerful and effective, evoking not just mood but commenting on characters and action.
The problem is that there is only the one set, and no matter how wonderful it is, the action of the opera takes place in numerous locations. Some scenes are performed in front of the curtain, but others require the audience to imagine that the characters are somewhere other than where they are. It can all get rather confusing as we wonder whether this scene is meant to be taking place in the Duke’s court or in Sparafucile’s house, in the garden or in Rigoletto’s home.
Still, when it works, it works extraordinarily well. When the upstage door is thrust open and the masked courtiers march in to abduct Gilda, they look like an invading army, an inexorable force of evil propelled by the Duke’s licentiousness and Rigoletto’s pitilessness. They are Rigoletto’s fate, his tragic end unfolding before us.
And there is the problem with presenting Rigoletto as a completely modern morality tale: it’s not a modern story. Gilda is abducted by the courtiers, lied to and eventually raped by the Duke, and yet she still professes her love for him and is willing to die for him. Sparafucile’s sister, Maddalena, also falls in self-destructive love with the degenerate Duke. Even if Rigoletto presents a 21st century condemnation of powerful men who perform vile acts, it still presents a 19th century view of women as helpless and feeble creatures who need to be protected.
Still, for all its flaws as a piece of social commentary, this is a captivating and thought-provoking show. Verdi’s music is wonderful, and when it’s performed with the style, power and flair of this production, one is willing to forgive a great deal.
For tickets and other details, visit the Canadian Opera Company’s website at http://m.coc.ca/Home.aspx
Andrew Wagner-Caslon has been writing professionally for several decades. He has lived in the UK, Australia and Canada, and currently enjoys luxurious things in Muskoka, a region the New York Times calls “the Hamptons of the North.”