Gripping journey to the dark side
Rigoletto (Theatre Royal, Glasgow) Verdict: Immorality unbridled
CURSES! Are they supernaturally predetermined and unavoidable? Or are they self-fulfilling prophecies, brought largely by the supposed victims upon themselves? This is one of the questions an audience must ask itself about Rigoletto.
Don’t forget that Verdi’s opera was conceived and created under the working title of La maledizione (The Curse).
Is it a wronged father’s curse that sets Rigoletto on his path to unbearable tragedy? Or does the fault lie in himself? We can but try to glean the answers from Scottish Opera’s revival of its 2011 production.
Rigoletto is one of the three great operas Verdi composed in the early 1850s, along with Il trovatore and La traviata. Some say they are the finest he ever produced. Decades later, Verdi himself called Rigoletto the best of them all.
Unlike many operas we now regard as classics, it enjoyed a triumphant premiere, at the Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice, on March 11, 1851.
IT was the run-up that caused problems. The Austrian censor De Gorzkowski (the Austro-Hungarian Empire controlled Northern Italy at the time) had been on the point of banning the production on several occasions, calling it ‘a repugnant example of immorality and obscene triviality’.
Despite the opera’s success, Verdi had to be careful. Some subsequent productions were even presented under different titles; including, intriguingly for us, Clara de Perth.
It has been suggested the censor had a penchant for relocating unsettling stories to Scotland – where he supposed anything could, and probably did, happen. Thus, Rigoletto had in a sense been to Scotland even before its first performance in this country, at the Royal Colosseum Theatre in Glasgow on December 11, 1867.
The current production is a thing of contrasts: the opulence at the court of the Duke of Mantua and the squalor of the tavern on the edge of town, where the horrifying climax unfolds; unworldly innocence side by side with unbridled immorality.
It is a dark, dark tale. This is perhaps best illustrated when you consider that the only character with any semblance of a moral compass is a contract killer.
The only light in this sea of darkness is provided by Gilda, virginal daughter of the title character, the hunchbacked court jester to the Duke. But her innocence is such that she is virtually onedimensional, a mere cipher of goodness.
Dramatically, however, she is crucial – and Norwegian soprano Lina Johnson brings a vocal purity to this purest of figures. She convinces us that a convent girl who knows nothing of life can willingly sacrifice herself for love.
Not that her love is returned. Indeed, Rigoletto is well nigh unique in all of grand opera, having no real love story at its core. The Duke for whom Gilda offers her own life cares for nothing but his own selfish pleasure.
Tenor Adam Smith captures his character in a performance of perfectly controlled vocal and dramatic cynicism. At the first night, his jauntily sinister rendition of La donna e mobile brought the house down. But Rigoletto revolves around and relies on its title character. How is it possible, one sometimes wonders, for a disabled figure of fun who inadvertently causes the horrible death of his beloved daughter to fail to evoke any sympathy in an audience?
Part of the answer lies in Rigoletto’s eagerness to assist his master in the debauching of courtiers’ wives and daughters – and in mockingly making them more than aware of it. Part of it also lies in his creepy fixation with his daughter’s virginity. Gilda is the only thing he loves – but it is a perverted love.
As Rigoletto, Greek baritone Aris Argiris delivered a first-rate performance, despite apparently having been battling a heavy cold for some days previously.
Veering between insidious grovelling, apparent moral outrage and a lust for vengeance, this morally decrepit creature was brought to uncomfortable life by Argiris, in a display of vocal colour, power, occasional joy and even a sadly misplaced sentimentality that fooled no one.
His final terrible scream of utter horror as he realised the maledizione of a wronged father had fallen upon him was a truly memorable end to a riveting operatic experience.
Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi, Scottish Opera; Theatre Royal, Glasgow, tomorrow; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, November 1 and 3; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, November 9, 11, 15 and 17; Eden Court, Inverness, November 20, 22 and 24.
Contrasts: Gilda and Rigoletto
Doomed: Gilda with the Duke of Mantua