This is not a royal court. It is an upmarket peep-show, a grimy circus ring frequented by affluent voyeurs, erotic dancers and cheap whores.
Robert Carsen’s new production of Rigoletto opens this year’s Aix-en-Provence Festival on a note that is both deft and disturbing. Carsen can be depended on to tell the story straight, and he does, but with such attention to detail and refinement that Verdi’s opera leaves us all feeling strangely sullied.
On the most obvious level, we are implicated along with the Duke’s unsavoury courtiers, since we too gain dubious pleasure from watching the pain of others. Nobody in this retelling is particularly likeable. Rigoletto appears in front of the curtain during the overture, laughing and crying theatrically, dragging a sack that he tears open to reveal a blow-up doll. The circus ring is later also home to the doll’s-house caravan in which the court jester houses his doomed daughter, Gilda.
Ringleader of the voyeurs is the Duke, who strips entirely not once but twice on his way to rape the captured Gilda. The Aix audience rewards him with a ribald cheer. Overall, this is a solid cast led by George Gagnidze’s finely nuanced performance in the title role. Irina Lungu is a sweet-toned Gilda, able to make a convincing transition from innocent girlhood to suicidal adulthood; Gábor Bretz’s knife-throwing Sparafucile is deliciously wicked.
Though Arturo Chacón-Cruz’s courage to bare all as the Duke (even if he does keep his back to the audience) is commendable, his singing is somewhat less so; audible strain and intonation problems on opening night earned him a handful of curtain-call boos. Gianandrea Noseda is unflappable on the podium throughout, with tempi that are brisk yet flexible, a keen sense of dramatic build-up, and an ear for his cast. The production goes on to Strasbourg, Brussels, Moscow and Geneva.
A more perplexing updating is Dmitri Tcherniakov’s 2010 Don Giovanni production, revived this year with changes of conductor, orchestra and some of the cast. Since its last Aix outing, Tcherniakov’s oddly disjointed staging of Mozart’s opera has been seen in Moscow, Madrid and Toronto, but its travels have made it no more coherent. The action is spread out over a couple of months, rather than a night, and is set in the library of the Commendatore’s house. Everyone here is related: Zerlina is Donna Anna’s daughter, Elvira her cousin, and so on. However, the production loses a lot of da Ponte’s spark, thanks not least to the frequent deployment of a black curtain separating scenes that should not be apart.
Marc Minkowski makes the London Symphony Orchestra sound convincingly like a period instrument band, keeps textures light and tempi fleet, and only sometimes struggles to hold his performers together. A top-drawer cast includes Rod Gilfry’s degenerate, frantic Don Giovanni, Paul Groves in fine voice as Don Ottavio, Kristine Opolais as a suitably overwrought Donna Elvira, and Maria Bengtsson giving her all as Donna Anna. Joelle Harvey is an engaging newcomer as Zerlina. Fine music, but this production has surely reached its use-by date.