Rigoletto at the Canadian Opera Company. Conductor Johannes Debus, director Christopher Alden. Among the opening night cast on September 29, 2011: Rigoletto – Quinn Kelsey, Gilda – Ekaterina Sadovnikova, The Duke – Dmitri Pittas. Complete cast & creative, dates, tickets here.
This is an exciting new production that adds new meanings to Rigoletto and makes it serious and entertaining again.
Alden and the set and costume designer Michael Levine place the opera in Verdi’s time, within a recognizably Victorian all-male club to which women gain access only as either servants or playtoys. It’s not a realist set, however, but has many slippages into the dreamy and the uncanny. The perspective of the room is skewed, and at certain moments the lighting is such that it appears that we’re looking at a photograph with some parts blurred out of focus (Duane Schuler is the lighting designer). A lot is also achieved with the gauze curtain – a sort of a transparent veil which sometimes gives patina to the set behind it and at other times singles out the singers in the proscenium for special attention.
In the early homosocial first scenes of Act 1, with the notable men joshing amongst themselves, a deranged woman in a torn dress wanders around the club – the ghost of the “fallen” Monterone daughter who will pop out in some later scenes as well. The door to the club opens and a row of other women dressed up to the Victorian nines comes in marching and fanning themselves robotically. They take their seats to form the ‘public opinion’ of sorts – a similar, mostly silent but observing crowd plays an important part in some of the later scenes, and clap slowly and robotically after the Duke has had his “La donna è mobile” self-congratulation. They remain immobile but voice the gusts of wind in the storm scene.
There are no significant changes in the set in the course of the opera, just significant rearrangements, so when Rigoletto goes home he is effectively only in the far corner of the Duke’s patriarchal domain. The difference is the Angel of the House: the large portrait of Rigoletto’s dead wife who was of course a spotless rose and who observes the action (and Gilda’s propriety) both from the easel and from high above. After Gilda “falls”, the scene opens to the sight of the portrait slashed and vandalized, and Gilda lying at its foot. (The scene of the stealing of Gilda is superbly stylized, but the ladder, leading dangerously high up to the Victorian ceiling, is still central and gets you worried if the singer will fall off.)
The first meeting between Rigoletto and Sparafucile at Rigoletto’s door is nicely rewritten: Rigoletto is sitting just above the orchestra pit, where he often solitarily dwells, and Sparafucile (Philip Ens, very good in the role) sort of emerges from the dark depth of the room, sitting on the table in the company of Maddalena (Kendall Gladen). He brings to mind Chéreau’s Loge from the Reingold, but also the Victorian snake oil salesman and circus master types.
The character of Giovanna (mezzo Megan Latham), originally employed by Rigoletto as Gilda’s carer, is made into a much more important character here. She is in fact the Duke’s domestic and sexual servant. The governess is also the one who disrobes the women who are about to fall prey to the Duke – while Gilda is singing “Caro nome”, the governess all business-like unzips and undresses the young woman, waiting patiently for her to finish the phrase so she can step out of the crinoline. She does the same with Maddalena later in the opera, with the “Don’t think you’re the first, or will be the last” attitude. The storm scene, scary in its wacky Goth Victoriana excess and the lynching of the count Monterone, culminates with the storm lightning spotlight on the governess hiding behind the sofa, bursting into hysterical cackle.
All of this makes perfect sense, and the production ticks away flawlessly according to the rules of its own universe.
Singing was good across the principal roles. Baritone Quinn Kelsey in the title role was a force of nature, with singing reliable at every turn, even though the acting could have been less one-tone. Tenor Dmitri Pittas as the Duke struck the right tone for the character, keeping him safely this side of the caricature and reasserting his youthful charms and bright tenor colours even in somewhat unfavourable circumstance (in one solo aria he’s playing with a pillow between his knees, and in another he’s playing and jumping around with an antique sword). But if Alden wanted to destroy the Duke with mockery, he would have; he actually lets the character pass almost unscathed, and Pittas made the most of the opportunity.
Soprano Ekaterina Sadovnikova has the charisma and the voice for the role (as her “Caro Nome”s on YT can attest) but was insecure in the highest regions of the role on the opening night, which let’s attribute to the nerves.
With the competent (as usual) conducting by Johannes Debus and the COC orchestra playing in near-perfect synch with the tightly choreographed goings-on on the stage, this was a memorable opening night performance.
All photos by Michael Cooper.
Top: Ekaterina Sadovnikova as Gilda and Quinn Kelsey as Rigoletto.
Second: Ekaterina Sadovnikova (centre) as Gilda.
Bottom: A scene featuring (left to right) Dimitri Pittas as the Duke of Mantua, Megan Latham as Giovanna (kneeling), Kendall Gladen as Maddalena, and Phillip Ens as Sparafucile.