Sunday 18 October 2009

Rigoletto at ENO (with added jukebox, gangsters and Hopper)

There's been considerable talk in the press lately about how conservative opera goers are, in light of recent controversial productions of Tristan (which I'm seeing this afternoon) and Turandot (which I'm not). Some have trotted out the argument that anything less than a fully traditional staging is despised by some, others that there is a dislike of theatre directors working in opera. If any production can put the lie to these statements it is one of the standard of Jonathan Miller's Rigoletto.

He updates the setting to revolve around a bunch of gangsters in 1950s New York. As is the trick to making any such staging work, this is unobtrusive and serves merely to underscore what's already in the text, namely that the whole thing is really rather seedy and criminal. It is of little surprise that the production has been regularly revived since its 1982 inception.

Unfortunately, and perhaps because of this, there is a relative shortage of top names. For some reason, I had in my head that Edward Gardner was conducting, perhaps because of the superb Aida he gave two years ago. Obviously I had not read the bumf, most unlike me, or I would have known we were getting Stephen Lord. It takes a little doing to book a conductor I've never heard of before. From his sparse, mainly America based, biography I assumed he must be some up and coming youth only starting to make a name for himself; it was, therefore, more than surprising when he took to the stage at the end with his white and receding hair. From the pit he had provided a respectable but unremarkable reading of the score. A recent article argued that conductors make little difference: if ever evidence of how wrong this is was needed, one has only to listen to the orchestra of ENO under Lord, then again under Mackerras or Gardner.

Headlining the cast was Anthony Michaels-Moore in the title role and singing more than well enough for a slightly erratic hunch to be forgiven. Elsewhere things were more problematic. Diction was generally poor, and understanding would have been next to impossible without surtitles. A conductor who pays attention to this can deliver much better results here. Similarly, the trap of Verdi in English sounding rather too much like Gilbert and Sullivan was not avoided as much as it could have been.

As luck would have it, I seemed to have caught the B cast, with neither Iain Paterson nor Matthew Best scheduled to appear. That said, both alternates were among the stars of the cast, Freddie Tong's Monterone standing out particularly, so much so you really wished it was a bigger role.

Katherine Whyte was making her ENO debut as Gilda, and, by all accounts, debut in a role of this size (certainly as far as performance at a major opera house is concerned). She wasn't bad and the voice was nice enough, but it was nothing special either. Her acting was unremarkable too and, critically, she didn't convince as to why she lays down her life for the Duke.

The star of the evening, though, was Jonathan Miller's production. Wonderful designs by Patrick Robertson and Rosemary Vercoe provided a visual feast, from dark alleys to the fabulous act three bar, which looked like a painting by Hopper at his voyeuristic best. There was wit too, as The Duke plays the "why should men care" aria on the jukebox, pausing to thump it when it cuts out.

Worth seeing then, but how much better to have had it with a slightly stronger musical team.

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