Sunday, April 22, 2012

Verdi's "Rigoletto" from Covent Garden seen on the large screen in Israel

Dimitri Platanias (Rigoletto) and Ekaterina Siurina (Gilda)

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Rigoletto” was broadcast live to many parts of the world from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden UK, on April 17th 2012. Israelis were able to view the performance in cinemas in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. The opera was directed by David McVicar, with John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. This writer attended the screening at the Rav Chen Cinema, Jerusalem.

The creating of Giuseppe Verdi’s mid-career opera “Rigoletto” (1851) was fraught with obstacles. Based on Victor Hugo’s verse melodrama “Le Roi s’amuse” (The King is Entertained) – which was closed down by the authorities in 1832 in Paris after its opening night – its characters and plot were what appealed to the composer upon his receiving a commission to write an opera for the Venice Teatro La Fenice early in 1851. Aware of the fact that he would come up against the censors (Hugo’s play focused on the womanizing French monarch Francis I), Verdi’s librettist Maria Piave was determined to make changes that would soften the censors’ hearts: the story’s setting was consequently moved from Paris to Mantua (the Italian city known for its more relaxed moral code), Francis I became the Duke of Mantua, “Blanche” became “Gilda”, “Triboulet/Triboletto” became “Rigoletto”, and so on. Vastly different from the lieto fine (happy ending) of 18th century drama, the focus was now on the darker side of existence. Alongside the grotesque and ugly, Verdi, the humanist, was interested to present characters with realistic failings and a wide range of emotions in an opera characterized by duality. In 1850, Verdi wrote “A hunchback who sings? Why not?…To me there is something really fine in representing on stage this character outwardly so ugly and ridiculous, inwardly so impassioned and full of love”.

We begin our evening’s viewing as people are taking their seats in the Royal Opera House and the orchestra is tuning up. A well-spoken “call boy” (this term stems from Shakespearian times) enunciating in the finest British English, alerts soloists, each by name, to be ready to appear on stage. Cameras take us down into the orchestra pit now and then during the evening, enabling viewers to see the players, Maestro Gardiner and to even get a clear glimpse of the occasional page of the opera score. As the curtain rises, following the foreboding message of the overture, we are presented with a scene that could only be described as a drunken orgy. McVicar makes it quite clear that this court, the social environment of the opera, is a place of debauchery and depravity. The role of the hunchback court buffoon Rigoletto is played by Greek baritone Dimitri Platanias, making his Covent Garden debut. His huge voice and all-encompassing stage presence are matched by his intensity, total involvement, vitality and facial expression. At each stage of the plot, one reads the emotion of the moment in his eyes. Those eyes burst into flame as he turns on the courtiers, screaming at them, calling them “you evil damned race”, with the orchestra reflecting his gestures with incredible energy and violence. And then he is so different – so tender - when enquiring about his daughter. The court jester turns out to have an enormously noble and dignified side to him. Platanias’ performance was moving and real.

Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda was portrayed by Russian soprano Ekaterina Siurina; her performance displayed ease and confidence, effortless singing of piano passages, her creamy voice and girlish charm well suited to the role of the inexperienced Gilda, the naive prisoner of her dwelling and her dreams. Young Italian Vittorio Grigolo, formerly a soloist in the Sistine Chapel, now a tenor soloist at La Scala, Milan, played the handsome, suave and destructive Duke of Mantua. Grigolo spoke of really loving the complex role of the fearless duke (a character everyone loves to hate), referring to it as one of the most difficult tenor parts in opera; his energy and mellifluous vocal color, his flexibility, good looks and charisma, however, make it smooth sailing for him; and those waiting to hear his nonchalant singing of “La donna è mobile” (Woman is fickle) were not disappointed. British Bass Matthew Rose as Sparafucile (a professional assassin) came across as suitably wicked, his singing articulate and sonorous.

John Eliot Gardiner spoke of the importance of balancing the energy coming from the orchestra and the need to infuse the singers with that energy. He referred to the constant “ping-pong” of the orchestra taking the foreground and then retreating to give stage to the singers. He calls “Rigoletto” an opera that is multi-layered in its unpredictable transitions between comic and tragic elements. And, indeed, the orchestra’s playing was delightful and uplifting, boasting delicacy, elegance and good taste.

Discussing why “Rigoletto” remains so popular, associate- and movement director Leah Hausman spoke of “Rigoletto” as an opera centering on the theme of evil, adding that we are all fascinated by evil. On the other hand, the opera takes the audience through the plot by way of the most wonderful music. With such strong personalities on stage, Michael Vale keeps the stage design to a gloomy minimum. After the colorful (and daring) costumes of the opening festivities, Tanya McCallin’s costumes are mostly in hues as dark as the plot itself. Gilda, pure, naïve and girlish, stands out in contrast like a ray of light in her cream-colored dress, as did the Duke of Mantua, at one stage appearing in bright red.

Despite the fact that the venue was a far cry from the opulence of the Royal Opera House, that the sound was too loud and the fact that the English subtitles began only after intermission, the performance was, indeed, a treat and a truly riveting experience for opera lovers. The large cinema screen offers a highly visible, larger-than-life picture. Short conversations with soloists, conductor and associate director gave insight into the making of such a performance.

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