The English National Opera has a really big problem – or, rather, has given itself a big problem. It has decided to “refresh” its core repertory by commissioning a new production of Verdi’s Rigoletto. The rub is that the former staging wasn’t just any old Rigoletto, it was Jonathan Miller’s greatest of all Rigolettos, first staged in 1982 – a production that brought new audiences to the ENO for 30 years, was a huge critical success adding lustre to the reputation of the company, had been revived a dozen times at the Coliseum, most recently in 2009, transferred to New York, and was one of their major money-spinners.
Set in Little Italy in New York in the 1950s, with the Duke of Mantua a Mafioso, Rigoletto a bartender, and Sparafucile and Maddalena the proprietors of a sleazy waterfront bar, the staging, remarkably, never got stale. This wasn’t simply because of the “concept” or the excellent sets and costumes: it stayed fresh because Sir Jonathan drilled his singers to remember, above all, that they were always singing to someone else, usually someone on the stage with them, and only rarely to the audience. Like all his productions that I have ever seen, this Rigoletto was dramatically taut. What the director did was, above all, to remain faithful to and respect the score and libretto. This is simple and elementary and, you’d think, the first (and almost only) rule of directing.
It is sad that so few opera directors show much knowledge of this particular first principle of lyric theatre.
You might think it foolish to attempt to replace a production of the calibre of Miller’s Rigoletto. And of course, it takes a brave soul to accept the challenge of directing it, but Christopher Alden was probably the right person to have a shot at it.
Unsurprisingly, he’s failed; and this failure is going to cost the ENO dear. Most of my fellow opera critics have damned it, (with at best faint praise); but worse, I can’t see it being popular enough with audiences to be revived. The production, first appeared (and failed) at the Lyric Opera in Chicago in 2000, and then (bombed) again in 2010 in Toronto, but at least these helped amortise its obviously high cost. This means that the ENO has discarded a much-loved, still-milking cow, in favour of a scrawny turkey.
Michael Levine’s wood-panelled, painted ceiling sets and costumes are meant to be contemporary with Verdi, which means that the omnipresent chorus is resplendent in white tie and tails, and the women’s frocks are gorgeous. (It seemed to me that they’d been looking at Edward Gorey’s work.) But the sets don’t change. Mr Alden says he and Levine, “in this production, instead of moving from one naturalistic locale to the next… are placing all the events of Rigoletto in what we call ‘the gaming room’, where the men retire after dinner to smoke and drink, read their papers, and play games of power, control and domination. The room represents both sides of Rigoletto’s life, the workplace and the home.” Naturalistic? What’s un-naturalistic about this room that extends the entire width of the enormous Coliseum stage, with its potted plants, chairs, sofas, tables and lamps? It’s a specific space, not a generic, symbolic or abstract location; and it simply does not work as the duke’s bedroom, or Rigoletto’s house or the waterfront bar. The failure of the set to work as the locations called for by the text makes the staging incoherent. We often genuinely do not know where the characters are – nor do they.
The additions are woeful – most especially the gratuitous female dancer and the mad onstage hanging of Monterone. However, I quite warmed to the suggestion, from the huge centre-stage portrait of her, that Giovanna is Gilda’s mysterious mother.
The duff concept is especially sad, because the production boasts some particularly fine musical performances. Conductor Graeme Jenkins gets some terrific playing from the orchestra, though a few of the Act I tempi are a little too rapid for the singers to keep up while singing in English (in my friend James Fenton’s translation), though I imagine it is possible to cram more syllables into each bar when singing in Italian. As we can only understand the words by following the English surtitles anyway, wouldn’t it be more sensible to perform it in Italian? (This is one of the inherent contradictions of the ENO’s “mission” to perform in English.)
The beautiful, burnished, rich baritone of Quinn Kelsey’s Rigoletto is superlative, but he seems to have been directed to move clumsily like a brutal Quasimodo rather than a cunning Rigoletto, with his smooth, sentimental side. Anna Christy’s Gilda and Barry Banks’s Duke are (mostly) so secure of pitch that you can just sit back, wallow and revel in their coloratura passages and top notes. Ms Christy’s acting will, I’m positive, get better as she settles in and remembers to sing to the person for whom her words are intended. Mr Banks doesn’t quite look the part of the slick seducer, but he’s reasonably comfortable in the role. Justina Gringyte hurls herself convincingly into the character of Maddalena, and her lower register is lovely. Peter Rose is a properly butch contract-killer. Diana Montague is almost wasted in the role of Giovanna, but she’s the most convincing actor in the company – you haven’t lived until you see her unfurl a 20-metre long white tablecloth.
So was the ENO right to refresh its Rigoletto? Not on this showing. You can’t blame Mr Alden for wanting to have a go. But if replacing Sir Jonathan’s production was a matter of policy, the policy is wrong. It is, I’m afraid, a waste of money – and of public money, at that.