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Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, November 2010

Back in the late 1970s, a now-defunct cable arts channel telecast a magnificent production of Rigoletto combining the best features of traditional and innovative staging. The performance featured Margherita Rinaldi (a name virtually forgotten today) as the greatest Gilda I’ve ever heard or seen, Franco Bonisolli as the Duke, Rolando Panerai as Rigoletto, Viorica Cortez as Maddalena, and Bengt Rundgren as Sparafucile, conducted with brio if not with great genius by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli. Among the many wonderful things about that Rigoletto was the astounding portrayal of the title character by Panerai. Here was a jester who not only looked the part of a hunchback but moved like one, bowed over and scampering across the stage almost like a spider. Just the sight of him made you uneasy, and his vocal characterization was as great as his acting.

In this modern production from Barcelona in 2004 (no exact date given), we have a sparser, starker, more innovative staging by Graham Vick that hammers home the brutal aspects of the drama. During the prelude we see Rigoletto sitting on his false throne, a leather chair, doing nothing in particular but making us realize that the viewpoint of the opera is his. During the initial party music, a cyclorama turns to reveal partygoers sitting in chairs with their backs to the device while the Duke of Mantua rubs his thigh, chews on a couple of hangnails, and then starts singing “Questa o quella.” Rigoletto kind of stumbles around stage but he doesn’t walk like a hunchback, nor is his hunchback centered on his spine. Rather, it seems to be some sort of humongous shark fin that grows out of his right shoulder blade. During the duet with his daughter Gilda, he strips his shirt off to reveal this bony mass in all its gory glory. Why on earth he keeps his suspenders on over his bare chest escapes me. The stage business when the Duke arrives in Rigoletto’s garden to meet with Gilda is quite clever: The Duke knocks on the door to distract Rigoletto, then runs around to the other side of the stage set.

Marcélo Álvarez is excellent as the Duke both vocally and visually, though he flaunts the score to milk the high B at the end of “La donna è mobile.” Carlos Álvarez as the title character, despite his not walking at all like a hunchback, is also a fine actor. His voice has an unusually dark, almost black tone, which is appropriate for the character. In general he sings well, but sometimes his sustained tones have a trace of unsteadiness to them. Surprisingly, the Monterone, Stanislav Shvets, has a magnificent bass voice while the Sparafucile, Julian Konstantinov, has a weak, tremulous, poorly projected voice. Konstantinov barely reaches the low F at the end of the duet with Rigoletto, and everything else sounds swallowed, ill-projected, and wobbly.

Inva Mula is a lovely if mature-looking Gilda. Though she certainly has high notes and her tone is silvery, she has too fluttery a vibrato. By the time she reaches “Ah veglia, o donna” she warms up and sounds a little better. The often-cut music in this duet and “Addio, addio” is restored. As the opera progresses, we realize her virtues and defects: It’s a fairly large lyric voice, not well-schooled in fioratura, which causes her to smudge the triplets in “Si, vendetta!” In doing so, she ruins the musical and dramatic effect Verdi intended. Yet she is a good actress, and at times her singing is very impressive, especially in the storm scene where her powerful tones ring out in a way that no soubrette could. In short, I like her but realize her limitations.

Nino Surguladze is an excellent Maddalena, in fact one of the best I’ve ever heard in the modern era. I also like some of Vick’s stage effects in the later acts, such as putting the interior of Sparafucile’s hut on a tilted circular table and having the cyclorama slowly spin to reveal the Duke’s female conquests, pinned to the wall like so many butterflies, as he sings his hypocritical aria “Ella mi fu rapita!”

Jesús López-Cobos has somehow gained enormous international fame as a conductor. I’m not entirely sure why. Granted, he always draws a beautiful tone from an orchestra (when he was music director of the Cincinnati Symphony, he replaced players and had bafflers put on stage to redirect the orchestra’s sound), but is usually, as here, a pedantic literalist. All of the notes are there, but he has no life or drive. One will listen in vain for the orchestral detailing and drive that Tullio Serafin and Richard Bonynge brought to this opera in their recordings. Even Molinari-Pradelli sounds positively scintillating compared to López-Cobos. Thus the orchestral part of this music drama has, simply, no drama at all. It is a limp fish. In the middle of “Parmi veder le lagrime,” his conducting is so sluggish that Marcélo Álvarez loses the beat. In sum, interesting, worth seeing once, but flawed.

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