With its story of lust, love, betrayal and murder, allied to a battery of memorable tunes, Verdi’s first mature masterpiece has been a staple of the operatic repertoire since its first performance in 1851. But it wasn’t guaranteed that Rigoletto would be a success.
Based on Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse, that so scandalized Paris at its first performance, with its portrayal of the libertine French King Francis I, that it was immediately banned, Verdi and his librettist Piave had to agree to change the location and personnel of their story in order to get it passed the censors in Venice. Even then there were those who thought the character of the Duke of Mantua, who lusted after any and every woman, and was surrounded by courtiers only too happy to help feed his venal desires, would be to scandalous for the operatic stage. But balancing the libidinous Duke was his loyal, and very human fool Rigoletto, who harboured one great secret; he kept a teenage daughter hidden away, for fear what might happen if she was seen by the Duke and his minions.
Many directors have updated many operas into more modern settings, so it’s no real surprise to find ourselves in the White House at the time of President John F Kennedy. Yes, it’s certainly true that many powerful men down the years have held sway with almost autocratic power, and power over women has always been a part of that. And Kennedy was certainly famous for his love of the ladies, and, seemingly, them for him. But apart from that opening gambit, director James Macdonald’s production for Welsh National Opera (first seen in 2002, and here revived by Caroline Chaney) really adds very little to the story. Indeed the setting for Act 2, inside the Oval Office itself, feels very on the nose, and rather unsettled. Act 3 is much more successful, given that Sparafucile’s dwelling could be in almost any run down area of any large city, and we can just focus on the characters.
That said, once you get passed the setting and focus on the music this is a tremendous production. The cast is uniformly excellent, and the WNO Orchestra and male chorus bring real life and energy to Verdi’s vocal and orchestral inventiveness, full of sombre brass and delicately skittish woodwinds, under the direction of conductor Alexander Joel.
Heading the cast as the Duke/President Korean tenor David Jungoon Kim effortlessly sang his way through the required list of Verdi’s Greatest Tenor Arias. Possessing a bright ringing tone, ideally suited to this middle Verdi sound, Kim also demonstrated real acting prowess, being completely nonplussed by Monterone’s Curse, convincing in is wooing of Gilda, and then throwing her away for Maddalena without a second thought.
As Gilda fellow Korean Haegee Lee was no less impressive. Although possessing a smaller voice, her clarity was exceptional, allowing her to comfortably cross the large orchestra. Despite a small stumble in the final coloratura Caro Nome was delightfully crisp and playful, and young woman showing her first feelings of sexual awakening. And when she discovers her lover’s betrayal in Act 3 her confusion and shock were convincing.
At the centre of the action is Mark S Doss’s noble Rigoletto. It’s true that, in this staging we really don’t know what Rigoletto’s role is, but in a performance this committed it hardly matters. From the jeering opening scene, through the paternal duets with Gilda to the betrayal at the finale, Doss is in complete command of both his voice and the stage.
Support come from the enormously menacing voice of James Platt (Sparafucile), and the richly toned, seductive Emma Carrington (Maddalena).
Act 3, shorn of the necessity for the specific setting, really does pack a punch vocally and emotionally. The quartet (Bella figlia dell’amore) is beautifully staged, with all four characters allowed to demonstrate their contrasting emotions in Verdi’s musical highlight. The offstage chorus also added its eery sound to the colourful orchestral storm which, supported by Simon Mills’ lighting design, underpinned the whole final scene.
Welsh National Opera have demonstrated, yet again, that they are at the forefront to top quality operatic and theatrical performance.
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