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Rigoletto

by on 28 November 2019

Regrets of the Casting Couch

Rigoletto

by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave

Glyndebourne Opera, New Victoria Theatre, Woking until 30th November, then tour continues until 7th December.

Review by Mark Aspen

“Cut! Wrap; we’ll reshoot tomorrow.” How wonderful it would be if you could re-run the bits of your life that went wrong like a film-shoot. Regret is one of the themes that runs through Rigoletto and this is the inspiration for director Christiane Lutz to interpolate a Charlie Chaplin persona onto Verdi’s court jester in Glyndebourne’s new (and first ever) production of Rigoletto.

RIGOLETTO by Verdi ; Pemiere ; Nikoloz Lagvilava as Rigoletto ; Vuvu Mpofu as Gilda ; Matteo Lippi as Duke of Mantua ; Oleg Budaratskiy as Sparafucile ; Madeleine Shaw as Maddalena ; Adam Marsden as Count Ceprano ; John Findon as Matteo Borsa ; Aubrey Alli

In this setting, the Duke of Mantua’s court becomes a Hollywood film studio, the Duke a movie mogul called Duca, Rigoletto his star of silent screen comedy. Christian Tabakoff’s set design is an open and stylish representation of a 1920s studio with a multi-level stairway rising on heavy wooden stanchions, a brick wall with a loading bay door, and plenty of room to truck in elements such as the Duke’s office suite. Natascha Maravel’s costumes chime nicely against the crispness of this background.

Verdi’s brief and ominous orchestral preludio, which prefigures the theme of the curse on Rigoletto, is accompanied by a projection in silent film style (by video designer Anton Trauner) of a snippet of an interview Chaplin gave to the BBC in 1954. In response to the question of was there anything he would change if he had his time over again, he replied, “Oh no, I don’t even want to go back, I just want to go keep going forward, forward, forward…” An aged Rigoletto-Chaplin agitatedly strips to his underclothes and repeatedly scribbles in in spiral on the floor the single word “forward”. In spite of this assertion, the Actor (played by Bailey Pepper) is a recurring presence throughout this production, as he looks back with regret and growing horror as his previous life unfolds. His ubiquity however, does not so much inform the sentiment of the plot but rather distracts from the action. This is especially so in the finale where he is even joined by an equally aged spirit of the Duke and bathos belittles the shock-horror ending.

The Rigoletto-Chaplin concept does however create a new layer of intrigue over the plot created by Verdi’s librettist, Piave, which in turn he based on Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse. It is a plot set in motion by a curse put on both Rigoletto and the Duke by Count Monterone after the Count had accused the Duke of seducing his daughter, who had consequentially died of shame. (In fact, the opera’s original title was La maledizione, that is The Curse, until the censors objected to it for some unknown reason.)

RIGOLETTO by Verdi ; Pemiere ; Nikoloz Lagvilava as Rigoletto ; Vuvu Mpofu as Gilda ; Matteo Lippi as Duke of Mantua ; Oleg Budaratskiy as Sparafucile ; Madeleine Shaw as Maddalena ; Adam Marsden as Count Ceprano ; John Findon as Matteo Borsa ; Aubrey AlliIn this production, Christiane Lutz has Monterone’s daughter commit suicide by throwing herself from the topmost fly-levels of the film studio to her death in front of the horrified Rigoletto. The death fall is effected with beautifully balletic poignancy by aerialist, Farrell Cox as if it were a slo-mo film sequence. Rigoletto snatches up the new-born baby and holds her protectively as he runs off.

However, Lutz’s tweak to the plot is that the baby is Gilda, who is presented conventionally as Rigoletto’s daughter, and whom the Duke also seduces seventeen years later. This has different implications depending on how one interprets the paternity of Gilda. If Rigoletto is the father then it certainly explains why Rigoletto is so appalled by Monterone’s curse, but also this squares with Chaplin’s womanising reputation of trying to seduce any women (under-aged girls preferred) whom he meets, including those he worked with. Shades of Harvey Weinstein, this would set the Me Too Movement postings going viral. The alternative implication however, that Rigoletto has adopted Gilda as his own and that the natural father is the Duke, leads to the proposition that the Duke, seventeen years on, is unwittingly committing incest. This audience were left struggling to reconcile this dilemma with the already melodramatic original.

On press night Nikoloz Lagvilava, who was cast in the role of Rigoletto, was unwell. Verdi has been described as “a god to baritones”, so that was a loss to this performance, but more importantly Rigoletto is a role that demands to be acted out. The role was sung off the score by Michael Druiett, a resonant bass-baritone who did a sterling job from the forestage, whilst Jofre Caraben van der Meer followed the on-stage movements.

RIGOLETTO by Verdi ; Pemiere ; Matteo Lippi as Duke of Mantua ; Directed by Christiane Lutz ; Set Designed by Christian Tabakoff ; Costume designed by Natascha Maraval ; at Glyndebourne ; East Sussex, UK ; 8 October 2019However, the situation did enable the other characters to be brought to the foreground and particularly highlighted the other principals. As the Duke of Mantua, Matteo Lippi cuts a suave and handsome figure, belying his proclivity toward sexual predation, as he blatantly besieges the wives of his courtiers. Lippi’s well defined tenor voice adds a dashing vigour to the role. Notwithstanding that he has sung an aria questo o quella (this one or that), women as flowers to be plucked and discarded, with Lippi’s interpretation we too can almost believe that the Duke has a genuine love for Gilda.

RIGOLETTO by Verdi ; Pemiere ; Nikoloz Lagvilava as Rigoletto ; Vuvu Mpofu as Gilda ; Matteo Lippi as Duke of Mantua ; Oleg Budaratskiy as Sparafucile ; Madeleine Shaw as Maddalena ; Adam Marsden as Count Ceprano ; John Findon as Matteo Borsa ; Aubrey AlliRigoletto has Gilda hidden away in a small house away from the Duke’s court, and she doesn’t even know Rigoletto’s name, but nevertheless the Duke has been having secret assignations with Gilda, whom he has deceived into thinking he is an impoverished student called Gualtier Maldè (which hints at maledetto, cursed). Strangely though here, having borrowed a chauffeur’s uniform, he arrives in a rather splendid sports car, reminiscent of a 1930’s MG TA, a silent electric lookalike; green yes, but impoverished?

South African newcomer Vuvu Mpofu is outstanding as Gilda, her acting is superb and her fine lyric soprano has that light innocence ideal for the role, but she can delicately decorate it with coloratura when the mood of the piece calls for it. For example, after the departure of “Maldè” her rendering of the well-known Caro Nome aria is quite arresting, as she dreamily (and ironically) reminisces of that “dear name … engraved on my heart”. Earlier, in her meeting with “mio padre” Rigoletto has very touching moments, even though Mpofu’s duets are without a fully realised Rigoletto.

Vuvu Mpofu has been catapulted to a principal role, and Glyndebourne’ first Gilda, having only appeared in one previous production, as third nymph in Rusalka. Before being recently awarded the John Christie Award for most promising young singer, she had never even heard of Glyndebourne. Such are the “talent-spotting” skills of Glyndebourne, which in the past have netted the likes of Felicity Lott, Alfie Boe and Willard White. In last year’s Cendrillon, the eponymous lead, Alix La Sure, came via a similar route.

RIGOLETTO by Verdi ; Pemiere ; Nikoloz Lagvilava as Rigoletto ; Vuvu Mpofu as Gilda ; Matteo Lippi as Duke of Mantua ; Oleg Budaratskiy as Sparafucile ; Madeleine Shaw as Maddalena ; Adam Marsden as Count Ceprano ; John Findon as Matteo Borsa ; Aubrey AlliBut back in Hollywood, Rigoletto is about to lose Gilda. The courtiers dupe him into taking part in the abduction ostensibly of Countess Ceprano (Eirlys Myfanwy Davies) but actually of Gilda, whom they believe to be Rigoletto’s mistress. Cue some clever Chaplin-esque slapstick with the scaling ladder, which distracts Rigoletto as Gilda is delivered to the Duke. Even with Rigoletto’s performers split between stage and wings, his devastation, disgust and frustration comes powerfully thorough, as he impotently and tearfully rages against the courtiers who stand in his way, even as his beloved Gilda, questo fiore this flower, is being ravaged by the Duke. Rigoletto rages against all this cursed clique of courtiers, Cortigiani, vil razza dannata.

RIGOLETTO by Verdi ; Pemiere ; Nikoloz Lagvilava as Rigoletto ; Vuvu Mpofu as Gilda ; Matteo Lippi as Duke of Mantua ; Oleg Budaratskiy as Sparafucile ; Madeleine Shaw as Maddalena ; Adam Marsden as Count Ceprano ; John Findon as Matteo Borsa ; Aubrey Alli

If regret is one of the opening themes of Rigoletto, then its concluding theme is revenge, as the concept of vendetta gains increasing momentum. The curse of Monterone, whom we see in an impressive bass-baritone explosion by Aubrey Allicock, triggers the vendetta in Rigoletto’s mind, and he has already visited the hitman Sparafucile. Pari siamo, muses Rigletto, we are so alike; the cutthroat kills men with his dagger, the jester with a tongue of malice. Now is the time to call on Sparafucile’s lethal expertise.

RIGOLETTO by Verdi ; Pemiere ; Nikoloz Lagvilava as Rigoletto ; Vuvu Mpofu as Gilda ; Matteo Lippi as Duke of Mantua ; Oleg Budaratskiy as Sparafucile ; Madeleine Shaw as Maddalena ; Adam Marsden as Count Ceprano ; John Findon as Matteo Borsa ; Aubrey AlliWhen we first see, or don’t quite see, Sparafucile, he is camouflaged into the brickwork of a dark alley. His emergence from the brickwork is a testimony to the skills of lighting designer, Benedikt Zehm and Maravel’s cleverly realised brickwork camouflage costume. Sparafucile is a man elusive and dangerous and Russian bass Oleg Budaratskiy is a threatening presence, his resonant voice underlining his menacing matter-of-factness.

RIGOLETTO by Verdi ; Pemiere ; L - R ; Matteo Lippi as Duke of Mantua ; Madeleine Shaw as Maddalena ; Directed by Christiane Lutz ; Set Designed by Christian Tabakoff ; Costume designed by Natascha Maraval ; at Glyndebourne ; East Sussex, UK ; 8 October 20Now the moment has come. The Duke is to be lured into Sparafucile’s inn by his comely sister Maddelena, a bait that they know he will be unable to resist. Mezzo Madeleine Shaw is magnificent as Maddalena. We can almost feel the conflict of conscience as Maddalena goes about her blood-stained business as the lure that catches the pike.

Verdi calls for a stormy night and he certainly gets it with Glyndebourne. Zehm’s lighting sets the background, the sinister humming of the off-stage chorus (a Verdi masterstroke), and the whole doom-laden atmosphere conspire towards a feeling of tragic inevitability.

Conductor Jonathan Bloxham takes the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra on the full switchback ride of Verdi’s score, following every nuance of the plot musically and balancing the moods that range from loving lightness to impending black bleakness.
With a murdered body in the bag, Rigletto believes the vendetta is compete. But then we hear the Duke singing a reprise his jaunty of his la donna è mobile aria. Who has been reeled in instead of a pike? Monterone’s curse has tragically been fulfilled.

As Rigoletto loses everything, the Chaplin conceit has a fleeting relevance, the ironic pathos that permeates many a silent movie. As the remorseful Chaplin-Rigoletto weeps over his loss, we realise the irony that, whereas regret might have prevailed over revenge, revenge has triumphed over regret.

Mark Aspen
November 2019

Photography © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. by Richard Hubert Smith

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