2010, WNO at Cardiff, Rigoletto


2010 Rigoletto WNO 01

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Venue and Dates:

Welsh National Opera, Cardiff
Dress rehearsal, 22 June
25, 28 June and 2 July  2010 at 7.15pm
(then on tour to Birmingham Hippodrome)

Sung in Italian with English and Welsh surtitles
Conductor: Pablo Heras-Casado
Director: James Macdonald
Designer: Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting Designer: Simon Mills
Choreographers: Stuart Hopps and Frances Newman

Rigoletto: Simon Keenlyside
Gilda: Sarah Coburn
The Duke of Mantua: Shaun Dixon replacing Gwyn Hughes Jones on first night
Monterone: Michael Druiett
Sparafucile: David Soar
Maddalena: Leah-Marian Jones

Notes: Simon’s role debut

From the WNO press release

At what price does revenge come? Faced by deception and corruption, cursed and despised Rigoletto swears that he will have vengeance on his master, the Duke and protect his beloved daughter Gilda. But will he pay the ultimate price?

Rigoletto is one of Verdi’s most powerful and direct operas but also contains some of his most appealing and memorable music including “La donne e mobile” and the breathtaking quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore”. Internationally acclaimed baritone Simon Keenlyside returns to Welsh National Opera to make his debut in the title role.

James Macdonald’s vividly realised production sets Verdi’s thriller in 1960s Washington DC, creating a tense and compelling evening at the theatre.

Simon Keenlyside & Sarah Coburn in the Rigoletto act II finale

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Mike Silverman, The Associated Press (appearing in several newspapers)

‘Tis the season for famous baritones to take on new challenges at the Welsh National Opera.

Last week Bryn Terfel sang his first Hans Sachs in Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger”; now Simon Keenlyside has added the title role of Verdi’s Rigoletto to his repertory. Both chose a first-rate company that has the advantage of being more than 100 miles from the high-profile glare of London.

Debuting as the deformed court jester Friday night (with a leg brace, instead of a hump), Keenlyside radiated his trademark sharp intelligence and nervous energy, creating a fascinating character study that avoided the usual grand opera stereotypes. His venom, his rage, his paternal devotion and his final heartbreak _ all these were vividly dramatized and freshly potent.

Though he lacks the force-of-nature-sized voice ideal for the role, Keenlyside summoned unexpected reserves of power for Rigoletto’s fierce outbursts, especially in his upper register, and caressed the vocal line with tenderness in his three duets with his daughter, Gilda.

He was fortunate to be partnered in those moments with Sarah Coburn, a fine lyric soprano who sang with sparkling purity and sensitive phrasing. As his employer and nemesis, the Duke of Mantua, tenor Shaun Dixon _ substituting for an ailing Gwyn Hughes Jones _ struggled to project a smooth vocal line. Bass David Soar was suitably thuggish and menacing as the assassin-for-hire Sparafucile, while mezzo-soprano Leah-Marian Jones made a strong impression as his sister, Maddalena, singing with brash energy and voluptuous sound.

The production by James Macdonald, new in 2002, transposes the action from Renaissance Italy to 20th-century Washington, D.C. Sadly, it turns out to be surprisingly believable to turn the sexually licentious duke into a U.S. president who seduces Gilda in a room just off the Oval Office (think Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky).

Pablo Heras-Casado conducted the orchestra in a performance that started off bumpily, with coordination problems between players and singers. But the final two acts went more smoothly and the music gained steadily in dramatic tension through the glorious Act 4 quartet up to the shattering conclusion.

Stephen Walsh, The Arts Desk, 26 June 2010

Watching and hearing this revival of WNO’s now eight-year-old production of Verdi’s Rigoletto, it’s hard to remember he composed it only a year or two before La Traviata, that most psychologically believable of all his operas. In Rigoletto nothing makes sense: the hunchback’s pretty daughter, her apparently willing incarceration, Rigoletto’s hoodwinking (literally) into helping her abduction, her final self-sacrifice – all palpable nonsense. Yet the piece never seriously fails. In a sense it’s music drama at its purest: the plot is an appendage to the music, what Wagner later called “deeds of music made visible”. So you might expect it to work in any setting, as long as the music is properly treated. James Macdonald’s production, revived with a very strong cast under a fine conductor, suggests not.

Macdonald and his designer, Robert Innes Hopkins, famously transplant Victor Hugo’s story to Kennedy’s White House – one of those bright after-dinner ideas that too often hit the stage when they should really have gone out with the left-overs. The change adds stupidity to the nonsense. At least in 16th-century Mantua it’s half-plausible that Rigoletto would be disturbed by Monterone’s curse. But in 1963 Washington (in fact November, to judge from the illuminated pumpkin head in Rigoletto’s house)? And who is this Rigoletto anyway? And who are all these ridiculous balding, besuited courtiers, dedicated apparently to nothing except kidnap and rape? One may be a Kennedy agnostic, but surely there are limits. In short, the attempt at veracity merely draws attention to the improbabilities, and – worse – renders them irritating. Luckily, though, WNO base their casting on sounder principles.

Rigoletto is an easier work than its other Verdi contemporary Il Trovatore, which according to Caruso needed the four greatest singers in the world in order to be a success; Rigoletto needs only three, though it adds some tricky and subtle supporting roles, like the unforgettable bass part of the contract killer Sparafucile, superbly sung here by the up-and-coming David Soar, and the briefer but not much less important Monterone (Michael Druiett, also impressive). The Duke (President) of course has the juiciest lollipops, and WNO were fortunate to have Shaun Dixon as reserve for the indisposed Gwyn Hughes Jones, singing with complete aplomb and immaculate style, including a few bad habits of your well-versed Italian tenor (not, for example, quite reaching his standard-issue top B at the end of “La donna è mobile“).  Dixon also has excellent presence and is a better actor than most spaghetti regulars.

The vocal star of this particular show, however, is beyond question the American soprano, Sarah Coburn, whose vulnerable, bobby-soxed Gilda fits the production to a tee, but whose musical command makes no concessions to its brainlessness. Her “Caro nome“, supported by exquisite flute-playing, should have stopped the show but didn’t, quite, because Verdi (thinking of stage rather than audience values) fades it out at the end, so that only Italians, perhaps, know that you should still cheer such singing to the rafters, if necessary drowning the orchestra. She is also deeply touching in the post-rape scene – “Tutte le feste” perfectly balanced in sentiment, controlled in vocal line. By comparison, Simon Keenlyside is not in my book as one of the angels of the voice, but he uses his slightly colourless timbre to brilliant effect, and at times almost convinces us that the Hunchback (or at least Handicapped) of Capitol Hill is a possible concept. His “Cortigiani” rises to an almost frightening grandeur of menace, and he earlier manages the switch from tormentor to tormented as convincingly as one can expect in this context.

The conductor is the young Spaniard Pablo Heras-Casado – excellent not least because unobtrusive, attentive to the singers but also moulding orchestral and choral detail with great care. And this company is in fine fettle just now, apparently unjaded by their more spectacular work on Wagner’s Meistersinger

Rian Evans, The Guardian, 27 June 2010

Censorship forced Verdi to turn Victor Hugo’s king in Le Roi S’Amuse into the Duke of Mantua, but James McDonald’s portrait of a philandering president in a 1960s White House could hardly be more explicit. Welsh National Opera’s staging was first seen in 2002 and revived once before; only now, with baritone Simon Keenlyside shifting the focus back to the tortured eponymous jester does Macdonald’s concept really begin to work.

It’s hard to believe that Keenlyside is new to the role, when his embodiment of the embittered but vulnerable Rigoletto is so complete. As his resentment towards his boss – for whom he fixes and pimps as well as lampooning – becomes pure poison, Keenlyside’s voice reflects an acute volatility. But while Rigoletto is sardonic and vengeful, he is also racked with the pain of his wife’s death and of love for his daughter, Gilda. In an auspicious UK debut, the American Sarah Coburn helped make the father–daughter duets as heart-rending as Verdi intended. Coburn’s agile soprano was laser-like at the top, but equally capable of a deeper, gutsier tone. Tenor Shaun Dixon, the 11th-hour replacement for a stricken Gwyn Hughes-Jones, used some of his range to considerable effect, but had neither the charisma needed for the Duke/President, nor the charm to explain Gilda’s ensnarement by him. David Soar and Leah-Marian Jones were a killer-team as Sparafucile and Maddalena.

All could have done with more stable support from the pit; conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, also on debut, was decidedly uneven. Nevertheless, Keenlyside makes this is a must-see.

Christopher Grey, The Oxfort Times,30.6.2010

The debut of Simon Keenlyside as Rigoletto — while not so headline grabbing as that of Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs — is nevertheless an opera event of some moment. This fine baritone, with many key roles in the repertoire already under his belt, is rather young to be giving us Verdi’s vengeful hunchback (as, indeed, is Terfel for Sachs). This means, though, that his forceful take on the character will be enjoyed in performances in the opera houses of the world for years to come.

Some might hope that these will be in rather less idiosyncratic productions than that of director James Macdonald for WNO, which shifts the action from Renaissance Mantua to the White House of (one guesses) the 1960s or 70s, well suggested in the sleek designs of Robert Innes Hopkins. My view, having twice encountered the version since its 2002 unveiling, is that it works well, especially in its presentation of the spivily-suited gang of crooked toadies that surround ‘Duke’. That this pivotal role was necessarily entrusted to a substituting Shaun Dixon last Friday, owing to the indisposition of Gwyn Hughes Jones, meant the revival was hardly heard at its best.

But Keenlyside’s vigorous presentation of Rigoletto — reminiscent in his shameless display of deformity of Antony Sher as Richard III — had a potent appeal, especially in scenes with the delightful Gilda — a schoolgirl in her white socks and headband — as portrayed by the American soprano Sarah Coburn.

A Myra Hindley-like Maddalena from Leah-Narian Jones and David Soar’s frightening presence as her contract-killer brother Sparafucile were other compelling features of a thrilling night of musical drama under the young (still only 32!) Spanish conductor Pablo Hera-Casado.

There are further performances on Friday in Cardiff and next Wednesday and Friday at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

Nigel Jarrett, The South Wales Argus, 28.6.2010

WNO’s first-night revival of Verdi’s Rigoletto in the version by producer James Macdonald was notable for a number of ‘firsts’.

Most long-awaited was the title-role debut of the great British baritone Simon Keenlyside, but there were newcomer appearances, too, for American soprano Sarah Coburn as Rigoletto’s’s ill-fated daughter Gilda and young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado in the pit.

Keenlyside’s portrayal was uncompromising in the power of its invective, though at moments it seemed vocally overwrought as he attacked the high baritone tessitura with manic energy.

His flailing Rigoletto was younger than one expected – the singer’s actual age, in fact – while Coburn’s Gilda was made to look younger than the singer actually is.

This might seem irrelevant but both characters took on a different edge. Certainly, Gilda’s death at the final curtain seemed to leave Rigoletto with not an ounce of resignation but lots of capability for further vengeful acts, even at the level of removing what may be a prosthetic leg and whacking someone with it.

Coburn, in also her UK debut and despite some mushy Italian, strove for the heights. As this opera proceeds on the strength of its duets, she and Keenlyside were often exhilaratingly well matched.

Shaun Dixon, standing in for the indisposed Gwyn Hughes Jones, was a relaxed Duke who sang his big arias brightly, and David Soar dug deeply for the assassin Sparafucile’s depravity, with Leah Marian-Jones as a sisterly hanger-on.

Keeping the seething Keenlyside on track was not the least of Heras-Casado’s achievements with the orchestra.

Mike Smith, Wales Online, 28.6.2010

BRYN Terfel had the delight of a lavish new production to make his role debut as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger. Much acclaimed baritone Simon Keelyside had to make do with the season’s second fiddle piece, a revival of James Macdonald’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto, for his debut as the hunchback court jester.

I doubt whether Keenlyside will care too much that Macdonald and designer Robert Innes Hopkins transposing of the story to JFK’s White House reduces the plot to near farce and weakens the pathos of the drama. With the excellent John Fisher at the helm of WNO it is singing that now matters and this shone through.

The opening night was marred by the lack of Gwyn Hughes Jones with cover Shaun Dixon ably if not spectacularly filling the gap. Rather than a dashing chauvinist womaniser (where Kennedy presumably came into Macdonald’s brain) he comes over as feckless. He manages La donna e mobile ably and there was no problem with his contribution to the magical Act Three quartet so the audience went home happy.

David Soar just gets better and better and here, in his last season under contract with WNO, he sings the contract assassin Sparafucile. This singer’s career will now blossom further here and across the opera houses. Welsh Mezzo-soprano Leah-Marian Jones sang Maddalena with aplomb.

Rigoletto’s daughter is portrayed by Macdonald as a bobby sox-wearing air head. But vocally Sarah Coburn’s coloratura singing is a delight. The “Caro nome” was gracious and moving.

I have been looking forward to Keenlyside’s Rigoletto since chatting with him two years ago when he judged the Welsh Singers Competition (this year’s competition is tonight at St David’s Hall). And while I would prefer to see him in a different production –where he does not fiddle with leg strappings – this was a well crafted performance. The despair was there at the end of the evening but some of the contrast between buffoon and tormented soul was lacking.

The orchestra was in the hands of a young conductor, Pablo Heras-Casado, and there was no harm in that.

Jorge Binaghi, Mundoclasico.com, 12.7.2010

translation will follow as soon as possible

Sólo un búfon

Hacía tiempo que no veía una de las obras más populares y más perfectas de Verdi. Me gusta constatar que siga intacta e intacto su poder hipnótico sobre el público. Pero no me gusta nada que no se le haga justicia. Entendámonos: en el conjunto uno quizás podría dar un suficiente o un bien a la representación, pero en los particulares las cosas cambian y sigo creyendo que el gancho seguro, la popularidad a prueba de balas de un título, no justifican que no se lo cuide al máximo en sus diferentes aspectos, ya que se lo merece tanto como una novedad o una exhumación rara.

El espectáculo tiene unos nueve años al parecer. En esos momentos los escándalos de la sala oval de Washington habían sido reemplazados por cosas más torpes (y de mayor gravedad), pero probablemente eran una buena excusa para una puesta en escena sacada de contexto (ya me dirán ustedes qué sentido tiene en una democracia moderna hablar de duques, barones, condes y etc.) que, pequeño detalle, empieza con el bufón pagando a las prostitutas que acaban de entretener a su amo (Verdi y Piave calculaban sus entradas: la obra empieza con el ‘duque’; Rigoletto aparece mucho después con su primera frase. El efecto queda destruido).

En ese contexto, Sparafucile y Maddalena encajan como pueden (mal, aunque ella parece salida más bien de una escena de West Side Story), la escena de Monterone es superada sólo por su segunda aparición en silla de ruedas y con una inyección que se le clava que no acabo de entender si es la letal o qué, mientras una secretaria corre como loca en todo el segundo acto intentado que el duque le firme unos papeles y obteniendo sólo pellizcos en sus nalgas de parte de este y de los cortesanos. El paje y Giovanna salen mejor librados. Pero Gilda, estampa copiada de los films juveniles de June Allyson o Doris Day de finales de los años cuarenta y principios de los cincuenta del pasado siglo, resiste mal el cambio a la vestimenta masculina (el pijama del segundo acto le está mejor). Por suerte el protagonista sigue siendo un minusválido aunque sin chepa pero con problemas de pierna y brazo.

La dirección de Heras-Casado empezó bien con el preludio, sufrió algunas ondulaciones y se estabilizó a partir del segundo acto para destacar en el tercero, aprovechando las excelentes condiciones de orquesta (y coro).

En general, los comprimarios fueron más que correctos, con nota para Bizzarri y Druiett (si es que Monterone debe considerarse comprimario, cosa que no creo). La Maddalena de Jones fue eficaz: mi duda, en una parte tan importante como breve, es si la cantante tiene pensado, por ejemplo, cantar ‘Carmen’ del mismo modo, ya que aquí la vulgaridad (en canto e interpretación) puede valer, pero en otros papeles no. Soar deja la compañía luego de esta temporada y su Sparafucile, convincente como artista, puso en evidencia graves interesantes pero un agudo corto, y de color y volumen distintos del resto del registro.

El tenor que debía encarnar al duque/presidente se enfermó a último momento y su reemplazante hizo lo que pudo que, en realidad, no fue mucho. No se trata sólo de notas gritadas, apenas tocadas, etc., sino de un fraseo inexistente, un italiano mejorable y unos problemas técnicos no resueltos que afloraron, por ejemplo, de modo vistoso en ‘E’ il sol dell’anima’ y en la cabaletta ‘Possente amor’ (doble, para colmo: ¿cuál es el sentido de reabrir los cortes impuestos por la tradición en una época en que probablemente había voces para cantar estas brillantes cabalettas en al menos una estrofa, cuando lo que se consigue es poner en peligro a artistas, público y autor? Para que haga efecto, hay que cantarla como Kraus, y ya se ha visto en directo que a todo un Flórez le plantea problemas. Si no, ha habido grandes duques sin cabaletta, mientras que cantarla no significa estar en condiciones de superar sus escollos).

Muy aplaudida Coburn. Su Gilda fue del tipo cándido, con tiranteces y un problema espectacular en ‘Caro nome’ (no me refiero al sobreagudo no escrito al final, sino al temible agudo escrito al promediar el aria); como se trata de una líricoligera hubo momentos en segundo y tercer acto donde hubo dificultad para oírla y cuando se la oyó el color y la calidad de centro y grave fueron lo previsible: casi inexistentes.

La reposición tenía lugar, sobre todo, para que Simon Keenlyside debutara en el papel protagonista. Y con él las cosas cambiaron de nivel. Se sabe que no es la voz de barítono verdiano que uno tiene en la cabeza. Se sabe igualmente el extraordinario artista y músico que es. Se lanzó de cabeza al rol, y debo confesar que nunca había visto en la primera escena un bufón tan desagradable y áspero, un corruptor corrupto. Y cómo funcionó. También cómo cantó. Tal vez al ser la primera noche hubo alguna laguna (primera vez en mi experiencia) en las palabras del libreto, y la dosificación del fiato en la versión (completa) del gran dúo con Gilda (‘Veglia o donna’) no fue la ideal (se quedó corto más de una vez; se sabe lo peligroso que es el momento). Asimismo seguro que mejorará su ‘maledizione’ final del primer acto (la última fue impresionante) y habrá que ver si logra mantener el agudo final de la ‘vendetta’ que aquí apenas tocó.

He hecho una descripción pormenorizada porque supongo que se conoce mi admiración por el artista (fue la principal razón de mi viaje a Cardiff) y no deseo que se piense que por ese motivo omito reparos. Pero son mezquinos. La interpretación, los colores, el fraseo, fueron los de un auténtico grande (de volumen hablando, es una de las pocas veces que se escucha tanto y tan bien al barítono en el cuarteto); en cuanto a la forma de vivir el personaje y de poner de relieve sus malformaciones físicas, me limitaré a citar a un crítico inglés que dijo haber pensado más de una vez en un Ricardo III de Shakespeare. Exactamente eso, aun con los momentos ‘mejorables’ apuntados, es lo que requieren Verdi y su obra, y que sólo Keenlyside dio.

Se verá en el futuro si, con otros personajes que piensa abordar y los que ya tiene en repertorio (Ford, Macbeth, Germont, Posa), este artista memorable puede llegar a ser un verdiano de fuste. Tengo que decir que me convence mucho más que muchos otros colegas de voz más ‘latina’ y ‘oscura’ que a lo sumo vociferan el papel y lo convierten en un ejemplo de espectáculo de ‘grand guignol’. La transformación de ser abyecto en padre amante, la desesperación y el ultraje de la invectiva contra los cortesanos, la exaltación del que se cree vengador (‘ora mi guarda o mondo’) y el horror del descubrimiento final se encarnaron en un cuerpo y una voz que actuaron de ‘médium’ para que Verdi volviera a hablar como debe y puede. Pero una golondrina no hace verano.

Bethan Dudley Fryar, OPera Britannia, 1.7.2010

4 Stars

Rigoletto is the final opera in Welsh National Opera’s season of Love and Passion. This revival of James Macdonald’s 2002 production sees Simon Keenlyside in the title role, performing the challenges of the Court Jester for the first time in his illustrious career.  Verdi’s powerful score is firmly placed in the hedonistic, political world of 1960s Washington with a sharp design (Robert Innes Hopkins) and fascinating orchestral colours with the young, vibrant conductor Pablo-Heras Casado making his WNO debut. The opening night suffered some ensemble difficulties between stage and pit, but no doubt these will be ironed out as time progresses.

The use of a dimly lit Capitol Hill gauze presides over most of the opera, hinting at shadowy political intrigue and commanding the secret sexual assignations of the powerful Duke of Mantua. Act 1 opens in a stylised wood-panelled room with partying beckoning through the hazy reflections of glass.  The licentious world of the Duke emerges as a protected environment where he can fulfil his desires and reap no consequences. He has constant protection offered by his right-hand man, Rigoletto and the fawning be-suited congressmen in his political sphere.  Act 1 scene 2 is shaped around the fenced home of Rigoletto and his treasured daughter, Gilda.  The wired security contrasts sharply with the opulence of the first scene, and has a threatening feel rather than creating a home of safe comfort for Gilda.  Act 2 is within the offices of the Duke in an Oval Office scene with the ever-important bedroom lurking behind a nearby door. The final Act at Sparafucile’s murky hut has trailer-trash desperation about it, with subversive sleazy shadows painting Gilda’s torment as she spies on this world and the Duke’s betrayal of her love.

Simon Keenlyside’s debut performance of the title role has a somewhat unexpected, but strangely apt, energetic and physical presence.  The hunchbacked, limping jester is not merely an outcast in the circles in which he moves, nor is he simply a mocked figure because of his ailments and disabilities.  Keenlyside creates a younger than usual Rigoletto, with virile presence despite a faltering gait and twisted body.  His Rigoletto has twists of the mind, and his performance on Saturday evening commanded the stage with a brooding, edgy depth. One had the distinct sense that this debut performance sowed the seeds of an interpretation that will organically grow and change.  Keenlyside has originality and a brave heart in this characterisation and his dramatic baritone was right on the edge in a thrillingly convincing portrayal.  There were astonishing powerful vocal colours and intensity, and immense phrasing in his overall portrayal.  The text was paramount in his character development and his Italian spat out the scorn, caressed the intimate moments and suffered the torment of his curse.

Unfortunately on the opening night, the Welsh tenor, Gwyn Hughes Jones was indisposed and the challenges of the Duke were attempted by the capable cover, Shaun Dixon. This role however requires much more than conscientiousness. Verdi intended the Duke to be frivolous and rakish, embracing those soaring phrases and relishing in the numerous vocal climaxes to reflect the character’s total invincible and self-confident charms.  Sadly, despite fitting into the production with security, Dixon’s vocal strengths were not up to the demands of Verdi’s writing. “Questa o quella”  lacked confidence and secure intonation, which did suffer throughout the opera and weakened considerably during “La donna è mobile”. As a stage presence, Dixon lacked sensuality and appeal, and one feared for the security of his tenor and longed for flair of personality.

What an absolute joy it was to share Sarah Coburn’s WNO and UK debut as Gilda. From her first appearance as a ankle-socked Sandra Dee, she not only radiated innocence and youth but her glistening, clean soprano embraced elongated phrases with aplomb and delicacy.  Her “Caro nome” had tingling, shimmering moments despite losing nerve in the height of the big cadenza and having to adapt her structured freedom of tone.  She had a purity in Act 1 which developed a fervent richness in Act 2, as Gilda’s life experiences deepened.  The innocence of her character could be felt in her portrayal, and once that innocence was sweepingly taken, Ms Coburn’s tone became steely and more fulsome.  This Gilda is a rounded study of the impetuousness of young love and its tragic consequences with vocal flexibility, shine and beautiful phrasing. Sarah Coburn is a Gilda with stunning verve and poignancy and graces Verdi’s music with ease and beauty.

Sparafucile is a sleazy creation of David Soar’s, sidling around the dark edges of the action with authority and subversiveness.  Last seen as a grim reaper type Nightwatchman in Meistersinger, this role gives Soar a dramatic opportunity to use rich tonal colours with dramatic effect.  His sinewy lines weaved through the orchestration with threatening vigour.

Sparafucile’s sister, Maddalena is played with seductive earthiness by the Welsh mezzo-soprano, Leah-Marian Jones, whose valuable stage experience ensured that less is certainly more!  By sliding around the unsavoury setting of Sparafucile’s hut, this Maddalena depicted simple, basic needs.  Her chocolate mezzo-soprano energised the Quartet, ensuring that Act 3 had vibrancy and physicality contrasting Gilda’s finely played innocence and purity.

Michael Druiett performed a Monterone of immense stature and richness.  His Italianate flamboyance in Act 1 in presenting his horror of the Duke’s predatory antics and seduction of his daughter, has enormous vocal reserve and achieves the dramatic quality of the curse. To see him later in the opera in a wheelchair, being sedated via an injection, takes away his sense of self-respect and deepens the tragedy of the curse he has placed upon Rigoletto.

The smaller roles are taken with defined characterisation, and the finale of Act 1 as the courtiers creep into Gilda’s living quarters to abduct her, is creepingly effective. “Zitti,zitti, moviamo a vendetta” in creepy clown masks made the scene a mixture of melodramatic, tragic irony.

The overall success of this production hinges upon the delineation of the major characters.  Each role demands great vocal skills in a dramatic earnestness. On the opening night, the role of the Duke did not achieve the heartless, attractive abandonment of his easy-come, easy-go mentality, but Shaun Dixon did find touching moments with Gilda in Act 1.  Simon Keenlyside’s Rigoletto excelled in exploring the anguish and protective father/daughter relationship, and in reflecting the tragic figure’s insular life.  Sarah Coburn also shone as a touchingly innocent and dutiful Gilda.  Leah-Marian Jones added a splash of sleaze to the glitterati of 1960’s Washington hinting at the duplicity of the political world.

Despite creating the opulent world of the Duke and the sycophancy of his henchmen, it is noticeable that this is achieved not by a glut of colourful props and extravagances. The striking set design has subtle flashes of red which speaks volumes amongst the suited and booted formality. In Act 1, Rigoletto cruelly plays with red lingerie as Monterone desperately breaks into the world of the inner sanctum. Act 1 Scene ii sees a red student scarf draped around the Duke to transform him into Gualtier Maldé.  Finally, Maddalena slinks around the stage in a red pencil skirt to entice the Duke.  These little streaks of red-light subtlety work effectively and subtly.

The evening was dominated by the wealth of colour and innate dramatic qualities in Simon Keenlyside’s tour-de-force. His Rigoletto is a magnificent interpretation, capturing anguish, loneliness, duty and the all-important tenderness in his relationship with his precious yet doomed daughter. This is a memorable, dangerous and on-the-edge performance, which gave the Cardiff opening night audience a special chance to share in a deeply exciting portrayal.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

asperia October 3, 2010 at 7:47 pm

the end of the opera from the rigoletto recording on bbc is so touching. beautifully sung by simon.
it is a pity i can only listen to this 🙁

diana jones July 10, 2010 at 12:09 pm

John, thank you for explaining the problem of the “sheep” noises.
I am relieved to know that it wasn’t some idiot there showing up the people of Birmingham! I did manage to get a ticket for Friday’s performance, and if anything, found it even better than the first one. I think Simon is the finest singer/actor this country has ever produced, and I’m only sorry I never got to see him when he was a frequent visitor to Birmingham with WNO in the early nineties.

Susanne from Germany July 10, 2010 at 8:41 am

Since 2003 I`m a fan of Simon, the great roles he has given in Munich, Vienna, Paris and Zurich I`ve seen in the last years.His Rigoletto reminds dramatically on Wozzeck I`ve seen in Paris two years ago.I think his person suits very well in Verdi roles, especially Rigoletto and Posa. For the performance”Rigoletto” I flought from Hanovre to Birmingham only for one evening (7/07), it was marvellous! Good luck for your Posa in Munich the next weeks,Simon!

John Woods July 8, 2010 at 5:59 pm

Diana – I too was at that performance of Rigoletto last night. The ‘sheep noises’ were very frustrating I know. I too thought it was someone fooling around. But at the interval I saw that it was a severely disabled man in a wheelchair that was making the noises (he was doing it in the bar as well). It was unfortunate that it was during Pari Siamo, but he was not doing it deliberately-and he was stopped after that.

It was a wonderful performance. My first time seeing Keenlyside live and I was not disappointed (apart from the sheep noises!).

diana jones July 8, 2010 at 8:45 am

I saw Rigoletto in Birmingham last night and thoroughtly enjoyed almost every moment. Musically, the only thing that I could fault was the “Duke” in the quartet of act 3 was so loud that he drowned out the other singers! The other problem came from a member of the audience,who thought it extremely amusing to keep emitting loud “sheep” noises, starting during the short break at the end of act 1 and continuing well into the start of act 2, when,presumably, he was removed. All of the cast were brilliant, and I loved Sarah Coburn’s voice. Simon, of course, was outstanding,vocally and dramatically. In fact, there were 2 moments when he actually made me cry, something no Rigoletto has ever done before! Loved it so much I’m now off to see if there are any tickets left for Friday’s performance! Thank you Simon, all the cast, and WNO for a night to remember. And please, Simon, don’t wait so long to come back to Birmingham!

Terence Dawson July 4, 2010 at 5:11 pm

Thought the shift of setting to 1960s Washington DC worked well. The problem of Monterone’s curse works once one accepts that he is a Mafia Godfather.
The second act set in the Presidents office, which I thought very powerful,must be more convincing now than originally, thanks to the superb TV series “Mad Men”. All those suits and 60s sexism!
Sarah Coburns Gilda was superb, a real find. Gwyn Hughes Jones was unconvincing as the Duke(President)and the voice forced, which was a shame as he is a good lyric tenor.
SK’s first Rigoletto is a revelation of characterisation; from the odious pimp in the first act to the father of the last, breaking his heart at having to break his daughters.

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