The opening night of an otherwise unremarkable performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto ended up drowned in a deluge of protests. The first signs of trouble were heard when the supernumeraries came to receive the usually polite applause and were greeted with some jeers, which exploded into much louder booing at the appearance of the main culprit, stage director Henning Brockhaus. The normally demure orchestra audience joined the more rebellious gallery opera lovers in a crescendo of dissent; right behind me a group of spruced up elderly ladies jumped to their feet giving proof of remarkable vigour and pulmonary capacity inviting the poor director to be ashamed of himself. Truth be told, it was not a particularly successful production, but Florentines have turned a blind eye to much more irritating stagings in recent times. It wasn’t even a new mise-en-scène: it originated fourteen years ago at the Teatro Regio di Parma, whose notoriously unruly audience had greeted it in a similarly unenthusiastic manner. To its partial defence, the Opera di Firenze had imported this production at the very last minute, since the designated producer, filmmaker William Friedkin, backed out from the project just a few weeks ago. Moreover, last spring the Florentine audience had shown huge appreciation towrads Brockaus’ Traviata, the immensely popular so called “Mirrors Traviata”; but if the latter was after all a traditional staging making use of simple yet extremely effective and expensive-looking devices, this Rigoletto unnerved the audience once again because of its space-temporal abstraction invaded, or better infested by a constant clustering of scantily-clad supernumeraries and dancers who not unlike pesky mosquitoes – surrounded the lead characters in the less appropriate and more intimate moments moving like vaguely zombie femmes fatales.
Brockhaus’ valid idea was to show the failed attempt of Rigoletto to separate his two worlds, his public persona at the court of the Duke and the private citizen revolving around his daughter. The two spheres were separated by a big curtain suspended at about 20 inches from the floor, and in that space the characters rolled in and out. Red in all its hues, with a stress on a sordid, unhealthy purplish tone engulfed everything. Gilda was first shown in a room, or better a cell hanging in mid air; as the only pure character she wore a modest white dress, although she is caught trying on a pair of scarlet shoes with matching hat, the first sign of the contamination. It was probably the third act that most infuriated the audience: the canopy bed that in the second act had hosted Gilda’s defloration, was now upside down and wrecked, a narrow and tight inclined platform serving as Sparafucile’s abode, which made Gilda’s murder clumsy and ineffective. Another target of public dissent was Ivan Magrì, a Duke of Mantua gifted with a pleasant lyric tenor and a secure top, demonstrated in the puntatura to the high D flat at the end of his Act I duet with Gilda. However, he tended to lose breath support and engage in falsettos whenever he attempted to sing piano, such as, for instance, the G flat concluding his cantabile (“non invidiò per te”), and many other notes in the middle/high range like the very end of the above mentioned duet cadenza, thankfully performed in its entirety. My impression of him is that of a singer with remarkable natural gifts not entirely supported by a vocal technique refined enough to allow him to sustain the scabrous tessitura of this role, and it was sufficent to hear the shaky attack on a G flat of “Parmi veder le lacrime” to have confirmation of this. Julia Novikova, who had her moment in the sun as Gilda in the Marco Bellocchio Rigoletto starring Placido Domingo in 2010, continues to raise perplexities. Her greyish timbre is not immediately associated with the unfortunate Gilda, who, albeit often accused of being a not particularly smart girl, is the only character undergoing a psychological change. The need for a purer sound is particularly felt in the first act, when Gilda is still a girl unaware of human evil. Regardless of her timbre, the Russian soprano seems to present significant technical flaws, producing squeezed and pinched high notes such as the traditional E flat that concludes Act II. On the other hand, she has good trills and she admirably performed all of them, including the very short one on the quavers of “tuo sarà” in the aria “Caro nome” as well as the long one on the E natural at the end of it. Despite all these limitations, Ms. Novikova was able to convey the psychological trajectory of her character, and closed the opera with a particularly moving and heartfelt duet, aided and stimulated by a likewise intense Rigoletto, Vladimir Stoyanov. The Bulgarian baritone has his share of vocal problems; I personally like his clear and bright timbre, but his tendency to sing sharp whenever he is under pressure cannot be ignored. It is a pity because his voice is an important one gifted with a wide range and an easy top: he followed all the traditional high variations, even though, like so many of his fellow baritones, he tends to attack the note properly and then ungracefully open it. Unusual for a baritone, he is able to perform trills, such as the mocking ones (as baritone trills almost always are in Verdi) of “qual vi piglia or delirio”. Giorgio Giuseppini reached his customary level of excellence: although he is a basso cantante rather than a profondo, the role of Sparafucile poses no hurdles whatsoever for him; his supple homogeneous vocal production allows him to portray a credible, not caricatural hitman. Anna Malavasi has the rich and warm middle range suited to the role of Maddalena, let alone the perfect physique du rôle flaunted in all its buxomness barely contained in a skimpy petticoat and tight corset. Aptly thunderous as well as slightly throaty was the Monterone of Konstantin Gorny. Chiara Fracasso (Giovanna) has a substantial contralto-like sound, but a simple E 4 (“e magnanimo sembra”) is enough to put her into a predicament. Luca Casalin, one of the very best “comprimarios” around, is once more wasted as Borsa, and so is Italo Proferisce (Marullo), whom I have appreciated in leading roles such as the Mozart Figaro. Nothing to object about the Cepranos (Nicolò Ceriani and Sabrina Testa), whereas Irene Favro as the Page sounded rather weak.
After underlining one more time the excellence of the Chorus, there is only Zubin Mehta left to focus on. A hint of what he would be doing with Rigoletto (an opera he has rarely conducted, and never before in Italy) was given last spring when he offered a leaden and slow Traviata. In this case, his favouring leisurely, prodding tempos put the three principals in a quandary, forced as they were to take inappropriate extra breaths and raise the volume much more than their respective instruments could tolerate. The tone was set by a Prelude sounding like an emotionally detached dirge, where the climax of the violins at the twenty-first measure failed to express Rigoletto’s agony. There were of course successful moments, such as the Sparafucile/Rigoletto duet and the introduction to Act III, but I could not shake off the feeling that I was in front of a conductor unwilling to sacrifice volume and orchestral opulence and grandeur in favour of narrative and dramatic fluency. The Florentine audience seemed to think otherwise, fȇting, or better singing hosannas once again to their beloved conductor.
Photo Credit: Terra Project – Contrasto