Alexander Neef, General Director of the COC, describes Verdi’s Rigoletto as “incendiary”. He situates this production within a historical moment where the #MeToo movement has enabled thousands of women to bear witness to the crimes perpetrated against their bodies, and against their very sense of being. Neef’s choice to stage this particular production of Rigoletto was no accident. Under the direction of Christopher Alden, there wasn’t a scene that did not powerfully invoke the wretched subjectivity of women floundering in an unwavering tide of male privilege. And through Alden’s directorial choices, which frustrated some of the more traditional opera goers in the audience, it became possible for a canonical work like Rigoletto to probe its own ideological foundations, and remain a tour de force of operatic artistry on all levels.
Alden chooses to set Rigoletto within Verdi’s and Victor Hugo’s own time. The Victorian set and costume design by Michael Levine was at once viciously opulent and stifling—in its conception of a single stage set with minimal adaptations for all scenes, the effect was theatrically elegant. The fact that all action, both domestic and public, takes place within a “gaming room” full of men, rendered all scenes of sexual violence fully visible to the male gaze at all times, and it forced the audience to be an unwilling participant in the sick predation against each female victim. This production also took a daring step in portraying the vicious cycle by which many women become complicit in the destruction of other women. For example, the characters of Giovanna, and the Countess Ceprano, are directly involved in the violation of Gilda. To be sure, this was a directorial choice that left many in the audience with a sense of discomfort, more so because it is such a stark departure from traditional interpretations of the plot.
If the plot and vision of this performance was intended to be harrowing, then, the music was, in every sense of the word, sublime. This was an unmatched ensemble of the like I have rarely heard, and it is impossible to single out individual performances because all the singers were at their zenith in virtuosic and dramatic skill. Even the fact that Stephen Costello, as the Duke, was suddenly taken ill and had to be replaced by Joshua Guerrero, produced not a wrinkle in the fabric of this performance. Anna Christy, as Gilda, was a veritable powerhouse of emotion. Christy was able to deliver the arc of Gilda’s character, as she moves from childhood to tragic womanhood, with rare nuance and passion. Roland Wood, as Rigoletto, brought a voice that could shake the foundations of the opera house, and yet, like a chameleon, was capable of producing mockery, sentimental and jealous paternal love, or vicious rage, within a single phrase. Stephen Lord, returning to the COC to conduct this performance, took this music that is known so well, and made it new through astute phrasing and dynamics—no mean task when dealing with an opera of this stature.
In his director’s notes, Christopher Alden points out that Rigoletto is “… a nightmare about an all-powerful and irresponsible ruler.” And In the end, this power, in all its grotesque cupidity, remains undefeated. Perhaps it even thrives. This stands as a stark observation for us at a time when a reality T.V. star can boast about his sexual exploits and still get elected President of the United States of America. Perhaps it is time that we all consider our roles in putting such men in positions where they will, time after time, escape the reach of justice and law. Will we, like Rigoletto, rail against a cursed fate, or will we find the capacity to throw off the yoke of magical thinking and finally reclaim that agency which, in a democracy, every individual has?
- By Giuseppe Verdi
- Directed by Christopher Alden
- Conducted by Stephen Lord
- Cast includes: Stephen Costello/Joshua Guerrero, Lauren Eberwein, Megan Latham, Goderdzi Janelidze, Anna Christy, Roland Wood With artists of the Canadian Opera Company chorus and orchestra
- Canadian Opera Company, Toronto
- Various Dates Until 23rd February 2018
What a remarkable review. Though I am a thousand miles away and will not be in Toronto at a time to see COC’s Rigoletto, I feel as if I was there. Thank you for that, Ms. Halpé.
You’re very welcome! It’s nice to see the COC making a real attempt to program masterworks which reflect the concerns of our times.