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English National Opera, London

Fabulous music let down by inanely abstract staging.

If you go to this production prepared to shut your eyes and revel in the music, you will not be disappointed. The Coliseum has worked hard to develop what must surely be the best pit-orchestra in England. Place Graeme Jenkins at the helm and a warm, subtle carpet of sound envelopes the auditorium. Minor moments of rhythmic awkwardness are easily forgiven and forgotten, and these are only due to the orchestra not yet being wholly familiar with some of Jenkins’ idiosyncrasies (as all conductors have).

The singing was commensurately brilliant. Quinn Kelsey delivers a wonderfully rich Rigoletto, and Barry Banks graces the Duke with a light and assured timbre that the role requires. Anna Christy’s Gilda started off slightly harsh, but rapidly evolved into an astonishingly powerful, versatile, and technically accomplished performance – possibly the high point of the evening.

Seeing the performance for these three singers alone makes the whole experience worthwhile. Tragically, such artistry is completely undermined by Christopher Alden’s staging.

Rigoletto is about love, lust, and cruelty – a perfect operatic combination that should make any director’s life a dream. The action may be interpreted in thousands of different ways. Alden chooses a 19th Century gentlemen’s club. This is an interesting idea, given the perverse and hypocritical attitudes of Victorian men to sex and women. Yet while the set is impressively large and detailed (complete with roaring log fire), Alden utterly fails to grapple with the subject matter.

There are many elements that go unexplained which do not add anything to the opera, and which one must conclude are rather pretentious. Even surrealism must have its foundations in reality. Why, for instance, is there a girl who appears at the start and towards the end, dancing around in her nighty like something out of Lucia di Lammermoor? Why does Rigoletto occasionally wonder over to a chair in order to put on a large, pointy (dunce) hat? Why, oh why, does one of the courtiers roll around the floor fondling the Duke’s shoes (the Duke has long since abstracted himself from them)?

The moment when Rigoletto demonstrates the Duke’s infidelity to Gilda takes place in some weird ritualised orgy (without any sex), in which the Duke wears armour and prances about a bunch of lamps. Banks is an outstanding singer – why is he subjected to such ridiculous direction?

And the scene changes are rather desperate too. They are noisy, which is fine, but that does not mean we should be treated to some weird form of mime by the leading characters in front of the curtains. Again, it adds nothing whatsoever to the plot, and simply seems like a device designed to distract attention from whatever that noise is going on backstage.

This should be an angry, vengeful, libidinous opera. This production might kindly be called nightmarish but, more realistically, it is just rather silly. There are great musical minds at work in this Rigoletto, no such plaudits go to the director.

  • Opera
  • By Giuseppe Verdi
  • Director: Christopher Alden
  • Conductor: Graeme Jenkins
  • Cast includes: Quinn Kelsey, Anna Christy, Barry Banks
  • English National Opera, London
  • Until 14th March 2014
  • Review by James Holloway
  • 13 February 2014

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