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February 16, 2014 10:26 pm
When Rigoletto arrived in London in 1853, Queen Victoria advised that the Court should not attend. The opera was controversial, as Victor Hugo’s original play Le Roi s’amuse had been, and was thought inappropriate for polite society, not least because of the frankness with which it depicted the treatment of women.
That is the aspect of the story that Christopher Alden’s production, new to English National Opera, makes an obsession. After three decades ENO has finally bid farewell to Jonathan Miller’s hugely popular mafioso Rigoletto and brought in this off-beat replacement – perverse and baffling in many ways, but potently atmospheric and performed here by a strong cast.
Anybody who does not know Rigoletto well is likely to come away without a clue as to what was going on. Alden sets the entire opera in a Victorian gentleman’s club, all dark wood panelling and gas lamps, the sort of place Dickens might have frequented (there is a Gothic streak running through Rigoletto). The few women in this company are playthings, ripe to be abused. A giant portrait of Gilda’s mother, the only positive image of a woman, gets slashed and thrown to the ground. Almost everything happens in the handsome smoking-room – even the hanging of Monterone and Gilda’s murder, staged as a sort of after-dinner entertainment, which makes nonsense of the plot. But then telling a story is not Alden’s number one interest.
Verdi’s characters almost become shadows of themselves in Alden’s powerful, hallucinatory psychodrama. Who is the Duke? We do not know, and it was left to Barry Banks to play him as an ageing roué whose ebullient singing gives him pre-eminence over the other club members. Anna Christy was vocally ill-at-ease to begin with, but her little-girl Gilda came to life once her voice started to work for her.
The outstanding performer was Quinn Kelsey, who sang a Rigoletto of effortless power and big-boned lyricism, a major Verdi baritone hope for the future. With Peter Rose as a macabre Sparafucile, Justina Gringyte a gutsy Maddalena, and Diana Montague no less as Giovanna, this was casting in depth, and conductor Graeme Jenkins held the performance sturdily together. A strangely compelling evening, though it is hard to see this production lasting 30 years like its predecessor.
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