There is an age-old question how do you present a masterful work of art created in the nineteenth century to a contemporary audience. Grand opera, like much of Shakespeare, is often concerned with universal themes of the human condition. Stories of tragic love, betrayal, and death are presented for our entertainment. Verdi’s famous opera Rigoletto is one such example.
For a Christmas treat my father and I recently went to see Rigoletto at the Royal Opera House. This is the David McVicar production first staged in 2001. The staging admirably sets the mood. It is simple, dark and foreboding with much in gloom. Perhaps it is a bit too dark, as I would like to have had brighter pools of lights for the solos and duets so we could actually see the singers’ faces.
David McVicar’s production is a no holes barred, most deliberately sleazy, with a capital ‘S’, production. Yes, Rigoletto, from the Victor Hugo play, shocked its original nineteenth-century audiences in Italy to the point where it was banned. However, for a twenty-first-century audience we are fine with a probing light illuminating the depravity of absolute power that is displayed by the medieval Duke of Mantua as he exploits his subjects in a virtually lawless manner. We are not, as the nineteenth-century folk were, troubled that their social order would be disturbed by this politically provocative opera.
Nevertheless, this 2001 production is problematic today as far as contemporary gender politics is concerned. As Verdi scored, there are no ‘singing’ parts for the female members of the chorus. In opera terms that means all the women of the chorus are simply littering the stage as objects. In this case to be used and abused, they have no voice, therefore no agency. Despite no collective female singing, there are four solo female parts. These characters appear to stand for the virginal (Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda), the whore (Maddalena), the old nurse/matron (Gilda’s nurse) and the aristocratic lady (Countess Ceprano). I suppose standard females rolls reflecting the nineteenth-century commonly held view of the place of women in society. This is despite the fact the record shows many women worked in factories as well as working as servants, or on the land or in trade. And, working women were also evident during the medieval period in which Rigoletto and indeed this production has been set.
So what can Rigoletto offer its 21st audiences? Verdi wrote it in the music, it is the psychology of humankind; those flesh and blood traits that cross the centuries and with which a modern audience can identify.
Attempting any tweaking sanitization of Verdi’s Rigoletto would be utterly pointless and the wonderful music has so much to convey not least the loving relationship between a father and his cherished daughter as well as all that bravura, dramatic evil. However, in this particular production subtlety is absent. Of course, nobody would want to dismiss a work of art because it reflects the mores of a different time, but I think this nineteenth-century piece could have been given a more reflective interpretation. Surely, it is time the ROH invited a new director to tackle this magnificent tragic opera with a fresh, more nuanced production.
One very positive aside, was the discovery (well, for me) of a new voice, the young bass Andrea Mastroni, most certainly one to follow in the future.