Rigoletto, WNO, WMC

October 5, 2019 by

Giuseppe Verdi once described Rigoletto as his best opera, and it is certainly, from a musical standpoint, one of his most inventive, pushing the envelope both in terms of style of sound and difficulty of performance. In approaching it, the cast and creatives of the WNO are therefore faced with multiple challenges, from the technical standpoint before anything else, with some unusual duets to tackle, the looming challenge of the quartet in the final act, and an aria, La Donna è Mobile, which is certainly one of the most popular and immediately recognisable in the history of opera. It is fortunate, then, that this second production of the Autumn WNO season for 2019 is particularly strong in its cast, starring a set of performers absolutely capable of tackling the many difficulties posed by the score and libretto.

Coming back to the WNO after a stand-out performance in Tosca in 2018, Mark S. Doss makes his Rigoletto charismatic, torn, and understated, bringing a much-needed physicality to the role and keeping his vocal performance contained, in a wise choice to resist the temptation to invest the character with a titanic quality that would overly reduce his inherent complexities. His Rigoletto is often hesitant, always tormented, the smoothness of the vocal delivery veined with a constant tension, a less conventional take on the role that works well in illuminating the many facets of the iconic character. The real surprise of this production, however, is David Junghoon Kim  (pictured with Marina Monzo) in the role of the Duke of Mantua. Perfectly in voice throughout, he infuses the character with a charm that is absolutely necessary for the smooth working of the plot, making his interactions with Gilda believable where in the text they are undoubtedly too rushed to be as strong a plot point as they need to. Marina Monzó gives some intensity to her Gilda, with a vocal performance which is strongly reliant on powerful delivery, perhaps with an excess of preciosity in the more technically challenging sections. James Platt is a delightfully sardonic Sparafucile, with an impressive ease of delivery in the lower range and the ability to make the audience break the tension with laughter in one of the most intense moments of the plot; Emma Carrington as Maddalena completes the texture of the quartet in the final act, with a set of performances expertly interlaced with each other that is one of the highest points in the production.

The choice to move the setting of the opera from the original Mantua to a modern USA, with the White House constantly looming over practically all the scenes, is on the other hand less convincing. While the Duke’s excapades translate smoothly to a sort of Clinton-era White House scandal, to strip Rigoletto of his jester’s costume is to strip his character of a fundamental contradiction, that between the forced laughter that is his trade and the deep bitterness of his person. The aura of grotesque that the libretto weaves around its protagonist is integral to his characterisation, and the spite with which Rigoletto addresses the Duke’s entourage as ‘courtiers’ is sadly diminished when he, by nature of the setting, can only be read as a courtier himself, not particularly different from the others if not by virtue of his physical deformity – certainly enough to invite mockery, and expertly portrayed by Doss in a very physical stage presence of a kind not often seen in opera; but still not enough to make being mocked Rigoletto’s whole job, and therefore taking away from the character one of the pillars on which he is built. Thanks to good direction, and to the strength of the performances, this does not end up undermining the effectiveness of the production, which remains a subtler take on a classic often approached in too boisterous a way. But as always when a radical change of setting is offered for a well-known work, the desire for something new and different ought to be always weighed against the equilibrium of text and subtext, and it is hard to shake the feeling that something is detracted here from that balance. Nevertheless, this Rigoletto remains a successful production on the strength of its direction and performance, and a rigorous, somber look at a story with very few winners and an ending more bitter than tragic.

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