It feels like opera lovers have been lamenting the absence of a true Verdi baritone for a couple of decades now. It’s not strictly true, of course. What they actually mean is that there are currently no house-filling star baritones who possess the authentic vocal heft, the characteristic ease in the break between the middle and upper registers, and the tenor-like squillo at the top of the voice, that are required to do full justice to the music that Verdi wrote for them. Given that mothballing most of his output until such time as this type of voice undergoes a renaissance is an option that is neither financially viable nor appealing from an audience’s perspective, a compromise is inevitable. Consequently we have seen these roles gradually appropriated by lyric baritones, who, in a different era, would never have dreamed of attempting them. In recent times, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Thomas Hampson and … er … um … Plácido Domingo have been among those prominent in keeping the flame burning.
It’s the visceral nature of Verdi’s writing for his baritones, the volcanic eruptions of rage or grief over an orchestra going at full throttle, that tends to find the lyric baritones wanting, and it was in this department that Simon Keenlyside – making his house debut as the eponymous jester in this revival of David McVicar’s 2001 production of Rigoletto – was most severely challenged. Lacking the weight and raw power to ride the most brutal of the orchestra’s outbursts, Keenlyside seemed diminished at some of the big pivotal moments. The opening tirade against the Duke’s courtiers in the jester’s great Act II aria, ‘Cortigiani, vil razza dannata’ lacked impact, and the conclusion of the same act’s duet with Gilda was a palpable struggle. Moreover, he was clearly wrestling with some vocal difficulties for most of the evening. A catch in the passaggio (the part of the voice where the transition from middle to top occurs) constantly threatened to become a crack – and indeed a couple of high-lying passages did come to grief. On several occasions, he was clearly taxed by the span of Verdi’s phrases, to the extent of having to take a breath mid-word. At the conclusion of his elemental Act II duet with Gilda, he tried to take the unwritten high A flat, didn’t quite make it, and abruptly stopped singing. (To be fair, the conductor has to accept some responsibility here – see the penultimate paragraph.) It was unclear whether these problems were due to indisposition (no announcement was made) or to the murderous demands of the role on a voice not ideally suited to it.
One of the obligations of reviewing a performance is to point things like this out. Now that it has been done, the best course of action would be to park those caveats at the back of your mind and forget about them, because Keenlyside’s is a masterful assumption of the role. If anything, the vocal glitches add further depth to the jester’s rawness and vulnerability. Leaving aside the relatively few passages that demand sheer power, this was a masterclass in beauty of tone, line, attention to language and characterisation – a masterclass that only an accomplished performer of art song could have delivered. The strikingly wide palette of vocal colours at his disposal, and his inventive and insightful use of the text were a world away from the usual stock snarls, sobs and howls employed by many Rigolettos. Furthermore, Keenlyside is, of course, a very fine actor – one who uses his physicality to tremendous effect. He gave us a jester far less aged and grizzled than usual, one who, despite his disabilities, is – with the aid of his assymetrical sticks – capable of athleticism. Broad histrionics are eschewed and, in their place, subtle gestures and movements assume great significance: the repulsive aspect of his character exposed by the sadistic way he spits on Monterone’s freshly defiled daughter; his remorse for his past behavior intertwined with his fears for his daughter, all communicated by a hand extended in sympathy towards one of the Duke’s latest female victims as he searches the palace for Gilda; his uncontainable delight at finally having the Duke’s dead body (or so he thinks) at his feet, conveyed by a child-like ungainly jig. This may not be a jester that will please traditionalists of a certain age, but for dramatic truth it will be hard to beat.
The Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak is a lovely singer, with a luminous voice and a charming stage presence. Unfortunately, she too seemed out of sorts for a large part of the evening. Gilda’s aria and two duets in the first act suffered from tone that drooped where it is usually limpid, floated high notes that seemed to exist in a different place to the rest of her voice, phrases in which the occasional note was inexplicably inaudible, and a legato that was too easily disrupted. At times it seemed that she was so preoccupied with being ‘artistic’ that she forgot to just sing. Mystifyingly, she stopped the show with what was a pretty average and uneven ‘Caro nome’. In fact, she stopped it twice courtesy of the audience’s confusion over an aria that refuses to end conventionally. Thirty minutes is a long time in opera, and whatever she did/drank/ate in the interval did the trick. From the first few bars of ‘Tutte le feste al tempio’ it was evident that the real Ms. Kurzak was back in the house, with full lustrous tone, high notes still floated but connected to the rest of the voice, and enough power to be heard over the orchestra as Gilda prepares to meet her death. If she can get it together for the entire performance, Ms. Kurzak has in her a Gilda to savour.
In the hands of Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, the rampant Duke of Mantua is utterly charmless. Yes, he’s a lecherous bully, but there has to be a reason why Gilda and Maddalena become infatuated with him. Pirgu offered no explanation, his ability to illuminate the character hampered by some quaintly old-fashioned acting-by-numbers: grope a female, kick a courtier, strike a pose; grope, kick, pose; grope, kick, pose. The voice itself is Italianate, secure, and blessed with ample squillo. It is also rigid, one-dimensional and not overly-fussed about accurate intonation. Oh, and its volume knob seems to have lost all the numbers from 2 to 9. ‘Questa o quella’, ‘È il sol del anima’, ‘La donna è mobile’ and ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’ were all sung in the same inelegant, undifferentiated forte, with the occasional plunge into a random pianississimo.
Brindley Sherratt’s black, oily bass lavished more classy singing on the homicidal Sparafucile than the thug probably deserved, while the fruity-voiced Lithuanian mezzo-soprano, Justina Gringyte ground, writhed and thrust with commendable commitment as his trollop of a sister, Maddalena. As is usually the case at Covent Garden, the smaller roles were all strongly cast, most notably Sebastian Holecek as a powerfully vengeful Monterone.
If some of the principals were having a tough time of it, neither did the occupants of the pit manage to avoid a fraught evening. From the intonation problems in the trumpets and horns, that contrived to puncture the tension of the Prelude, to Maurizio Benini’s at times unidiomatic tempi, this was not one of the orchestra’s finest evenings. On at least a couple of occasions, Benini delivered ritardandi that were so expansive and self-indulgent, that it seemed reasonable to wonder if he were limbering up for a Tristan und Isolde in the near future. He made up for time lost by setting off, in the ‘Vendetta’ section of the Act II duet between Rigoletto and Gilda, at a lick that isn’t normally arrived at until the final bars. This did not deter him from accelerating further. Frenetic rather than menacing, it left the singers unable to do anything other than hang on like grim death, and triplets be damned. No doubt this played a contributing role in Mr Keenlyside’s aforementioned derailment on the final note. If nothing else, it underlined how spoiled ROH audiences have become by Pappano.
The production itself remains unremittingly bleak. Michael Vale’s set, consists of a tilted monolithic piece of grey steel that rotates to reveal, at the appropriate times, the Duke’s palace (situated next to the mouth of a cave, apparently), Rigoletto’s house, an alleyway and Sparafucile’s inn. Each façade is adorned with metal catwalks, chain-link fences and various bits of scaffolding. Under Paule Constable’s gloomy lighting, it’s a gyrating, industrial dystopia that virtually cries out for a few abandoned supermarket trollies to cheer things up a bit. There’s no denying it’s highly effective in emphasising the brutality and squalor of the narrative, but there’s nothing there for those who like a bit of eye-candy with their opera. With regard to the stage direction, the most notable feature is the Act I orgy. Already pretty full-on when it was new in 2001, it seems to get a bit saucier each time that it’s revived. I’d swear that, on this occasion, there was noticeably more man-on-man action and a small increase in coerced participation. But what do I know? I had my eyes averted until Scene 2.
(Photos by Catherine Ashmore)