Some business first. I am bidden by the ROH’s Press Dept. to draw your attention to the fact that the performance of Verdi’s opera on 17th April is being relayed live in glorious HD to cinemas throughout the known civilised world.

There.

So, devoir done, what will you be seeing and hearing should you choose to roll out either to that, or any of the remaining seven performances in the house itself? Well, you’ll be getting the sixth revival of David McVicar’s much-admired staging first seen in 2001. You’ll get a returning (for the umpteenth time) Gilda, and a brand new Rigoletto and Duke, together with an unwontedly classy Maddalena. You’ll also be getting John Eliot Gardiner conducting. Some of this is good: but a depressing amount of it is not, so we might as well start off where all rot starts, and where most of the blame invariably lies; at the top.

The more McVicar shows I see, the more it forcibly strikes me that they are highly regarded not so much for their theatrical conviction or detailed direction, but for the simple reason that they are, for the most part, left in period, for the which relief it’s not so much a case of “much thanks” but of fawningly (and unspokenly) uncritical approval. “Oh, look! Rosenkavalier left in the Rococo! Adriana with actual crinolines! Thank God! No RegieRubbish here!” And it’s a view I both understand and have sympathy with. But – and you knew that was coming – you still have to look closely at the finished result, and ask whether a largely hands-off approach to the all-important matter of setting is actually successful. And here, I think, the vast majority of his stagings fail, visually drab and undifferentiated as so many of them are, based on only patchily effective unit-set designs, and with an almost uncanny inability to realise Act IV of any opera that actually has one (that of his Figaro is a visually incoherent mess; Faust no less so; that of his Aida – admittedly rubbish throughout – spectacularly fails at even the most basic story-telling level at the end; and Adriana’s Act IV is a narrative nonsense, with the important-to-the-plot absent soprano instead apparently having taken up fully-furnished residence backstage at the Comédie Française for all apparently to ignore).

And then there’s his Rigoletto, a three-act opera it’s true, though one which always used to be treated as a four-acter both here, in Zeffirelli’s 1960s show in Lila de Nobili’s sets (a thing of wonder to behold, albeit one necessitating three intervals) and in New York (witness Toscanini’s still-famous RCA recording of Rigoletto Act IV). In the email from OpBrit Towers which asked me, rather late in the day, to cover for a colleague at this revival, mention was made of looking forward to what I’d have to say about “McVicar’s über-ugly production with gratuitous todgers”. Now, far be it from me to criticise any todgers, howsoever gratuitous – so much nicer than having to pay for them, I always think – though the one on display tonight did seem a little, shall we say, overparted. But about the element of “über-ugly” in this production there can be absolutely no argument. Doubtless this is deliberate: and indeed, yards of the programme’s notes are given over to illustrations of dung beetles and lip-smacking descriptions of courtly corruption. Yes, yes: we get the message. As the (newly-introduced this season) idiots’ guide which now appears as a single-page preface in all the House’s opera programmes puts it, “the court life of indulgence is in strong contrast to the bare and basic home of Rigoletto and Sparafucile’s squalid inn.” Exactly so.

Except, of course, you’d never know it from this staging. In Michael Vale’s hideous set, court and inn, house and alleyway are indistinguishable, just slightly different aspects of the same enormously high, revolving, tilted wall, preposterously made of stray light-reflecting Perspex with silly post-modern features like a broken pediment and decked out with a noisy steel-latticed catwalk poking out at ground level (pretty much structurally the same set, in fact, as Charles Edwards provides for McVicar’s Metropolitan Opera Il trovatore staging, new in 2009 and currently doing the rounds of the whole of North America). The simultaneous spatial presentation of both indoors and outdoors at Sparafucile’s inn in Act III is hopelessly mismanaged, with the quartet of singers – two inside, two outside – more or less gawking directly at each other across about four feet of stage space, with only a sheet of corrugated iron to separate them if only the outsiders weren’t so far forward of the thing that it provides them with no visual cover. And Rigoletto’s house isn’t so much “bare and basic” as split-level and shapeless. None of it really “works”. Where you need claustrophobia you get yawning, unarticulated emptiness without effective entrances or exits. Where you need space and light, all you get is clutter and stygian gloom. What does work, or might if we could see it clearly, is the huge crumbling black brick box which frames the revolve miles upstage, and which was far more effectively utilised last season – uncredited to my great surprise – by the Royal Ballet in Kim Brandstrup’s new work Invitus Invitam.

Given that the Personenregie, in the hands of revival director Leah Hausman, is now little more than “stand-here, stand-there, run up the stairs”, everything is effectively thrown back on the singers to put the drama across is almost purely musical terms. Here, of course, it would help to have a conductor alive to Verdi’s idiom and concerned with both fostering his cast and energising his orchestra: but John Eliot Gardiner – the other “rot at the top” – does no such thing. When not metronomically beating (very fast) time like a bandmaster – as throughout most of Act III, killing both “La donna è mobile” and “Bella figlia dell’amore” stone dead in the process – he alternatively decides to conduct “Parmi veder le lagrime” in Act II with no two consecutive bars in the same tempo, pulled this way and that, and largely unsettling Vittorio Grigolo’s best efforts to harness what is basically a verismo instrument to the more stringent demands of bel canto line and evenness. Yet when an intuitive response to the drama is needed – the savagely scurrying accompaniment to “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata”, say, or the no less whiplash orchestral underpinning to Rigoletto’s “O rabbia, esser difforme!” in Act I – nothing is forthcoming from the pit other than chug-chug chording or a soggy plod. And something must be done about the standard of solo trumpet playing in this orchestra, and done soon. If even a conductor of Gardiner’s famed – indeed notorious – exigence still cannot secure accurate playing in the prelude to the whole work, what hope for the mere mortals who preside over the band in the ballet, where the recent trumpet horrors in Romeo and Juliet have been innumerable? In fact, the conductor of the last revival of Rigoletto – in 2010: Dan Ettinger – was in every respect a far better champion of the score, fiery and free-flowing as opposed to militaristic and micro-managing.

So: between Gardiner’s conducting and McVicar’s staging, it’s plain that the singers are pretty much on their own doing their bit to keep Verdi in the frame. And, God knows, they do all try, and try hard. Dmitri Platanias, the debuting recipient of some strangely-timed enthusiasm, has a wonderful baritone: burnished, warm, effortless in the uncongenially high register to which Verdi frequently confines him, perfectly even in emission and with a fine heroic ring to boot. It is a sound that reminded me strongly of Cappuccilli, though without the latter’s legendary length of breath. But, like his distinguished Italian forbear, Platanias’ Rigoletto is more concerned with vocalism than anything else; could only be described as a rudimentary actor; makes no attempt with his black-haired buzz-cut to look anything other than the same age as everybody else on stage, including his own daughter (in stark contrast to Hvorostovsky’s extraordinarily bald and half-crippled assumption last time around); and, most seriously, cannot get any kind of differential expression into his rudely healthy voice. Rage, despair, contempt, sarcasm, complete emotional prostration, all emerge in exactly the same well-projected tones. This is not a failure of technique: it is a failure of imagination; and is, alas, probably almost as difficult to resolve. I will happily hear him again. But on this showing, he’s more of a Conte di Luna than a Rigoletto: and his immediate reappearance here next season as Paolo in Boccanegra seems to me to offer a more realistic opportunity for him at this stage of his career.

I seem to have heard Ekaterina Siurina as Gilda in at least two previous revivals of this staging (once when I was expecting to hear Netrebko, so she joins the ever-lengthening list of sopranos who have appeared here in loco Mrs. Schrott). The voice remains steady, well-schooled, with a decent (if occasionally fallible) trill – the long one at the end of Caro Nome alas gave out in a straightened sputter – and some nicely accurate gruppetti (not something of which one would accuse Grigolo, who wolfs them down with a gulp). The tone is fuller, it seems to me, less squeezed in alt. and now has no real hint of girlishness. I do not, I should hasten to add, count this as a loss: Gilda needs real singing, and the last thing I like in it is glassy soubrettishness. In purely technical terms, she more-or-less nails the role. But like her stage father, and notwithstanding a far more evidently committed stage demeanour, there’s not much evidence of emotion of any kind in the voice alone, which tends to emerge in a fairly unvaried mezzo-forte, even when she’s in the sack (literally) appealing to her dead mother in Act III, and which could do with a whole lot more dynamic and colouristic variety, especially post-ravishment in Act II’s “Tutte le feste al tempio”

And then there’s Grigolo. Unique amongst Dukes of my experience in plausibly looking as if he would indeed not only host orgies out of social obligation but also enjoy himself at them greatly (unlike the vast majority, especially in this soi-disant “shocking” staging, who all usually look as if they’d rather be somewhere else), he bounces and bounds around the stage like some barely-controlled elemental force. He’s exhilarating, if sporadically exhausting, to watch. Alas, however, he increasingly – and this was very evident in the solitary Alfredo he gave us back in January – bounces and bounds around the vocal line as well. He gulps and lunges at “Questa o quella” like a man who hasn’t eaten for a month; and the whole Act II scena – “Ella mi fu rapita” onwards – is characterised by such extremes of dynamic that now and then whole bits of the vocal line actually drop below the threshold of audibility. In other words, he has a terrible tendency to croon, and though it’s always to expressive effect, it’s overdone; and in Act III it led him into two major passages of complete vocal drop-out, as when he vanished acoustically from the second verse of the quartet, and the second line of the offstage reprise of “La donna è mobile”. This he needs to guard against: it will otherwise rapidly turn – is indeed turning – into an inflexible mannerism (rather like his deliciously OTT London love-fest with a complicit audience come the curtain-calls).

Matthew Rose seemed – and sounded – odd casting as Sparafucile: the very soul of cuddly avuncularity done up as a cutthroat, and with the most oddly disembodied low F I’ve ever heard, so disconnected from his normal voice I actually wondered momentarily if someone else was singing it from the wings (they weren’t: but it was weirdsville all the same, and not a patch on Raymond Aceto’s genuinely nasty piece of work last time round). Christine Rice, on the other hand, was such a piece of luxury vocal casting as Maddalena that I was sorry someone hadn’t thought to interpolate the pasticcio aria for her character faked up in the C19th from one of Verdi’s songs and which I’m sure fetched up as an appendix on some studio recording years ago. Quite how she manages to sing in the quartet whilst having Grigolo’s face buried in her crotch and his hands all over her like an octopus on heat, God knows, but it’s A+ for effort. It’s more than I could manage under similar circumstances, believe me. I should find myself oddly distracted. Moving on…

We’ve come to a pretty pass at Covent Garden when a role like Monterone is a) cast with a foreign soloist, and b)sung quite so ineffectively. Just who thought Gianfranco Montresor would repay the importing I don’t know: but I’d like to. Many of the minor named roles were taken by current Jette Parker artists. None shone by dint of vocalism alone, alas (and perhaps somewhat surprisingly: I always half expect someone to come out of nowhere, like Eri Nakamura did as Fifth Maid, and blow everybody else offstage). But there was solid work from Pablo Bemsch as Borsa and Zhengzhong Zhou – you know, I’m sure that was a musical in the 1930s – as Marullo. And Elizabeth Sikora once again turned in an immaculate cameo as Giovanna, Gilda’s venal nurse and the Duke’s bawd.

I can’t in all honesty say that I enjoyed this revival much. The staging I was prepared to ignore in the expectation of a great musical experience. But that isn’t forthcoming either. Still, Siurina is worth hearing (again: and looking more and more like the young Diana Rigg): Platanias is a lovely voice (just an inadequate Rigoletto): and Grigolo is, well, Grigolo, as much of a Hi-Def chew-the-scenery bête-de-scène as either of the Schrotts. If only Ettinger were conducting, it might still cohere: as it is, I don’t imagine that the musical matrix will alter for the better as the run progresses. But you never know. It might. And if a bit of Grigoletto appeals to you, go for it….

3.5 stars

Stephen Jay-Taylor

(Photographs by Johan Persson)

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