Don’t be fooled by the period costumes and sumptuous wood-panelled set. English National Opera’s new production of Verdi’s Rigoletto is a sinister affair – far more so than Jonathan Miller’s 1950s mafia version, which has been an almost jocular ENO staple for some 30 years. But that’s not to say the update won’t last. Aided by exceptionally fine singing from the leads, this Rigoletto pulls no punches – and why should it? Verdi’s opera, based on an incendiary tale of regal rape by Victor Hugo, has to be one of the most emotionally devastating dramas of the 19th century.
Sinister is what we have come to expect from director Christopher Alden. ENO regulars may recall his Midsummer Night’s Dream – supposedly one of Benjamin Britten’s lighter operas – in which the court of Theseus became a drab post-war public school, the young lovers fumbling their way to maturity in ties and blazers. Alden took the eponymous dream theme to heart, in effect staging the stirrings of the adolescent subconscious.
He takes the same dream theme to Rigoletto. The curtain opens on a huge, opulent drawing room full of men smoking cigars and reading papers – an apparently realistic transposition of the ducal court of Mantua, as envisaged by Verdi, to a Victorian gentleman’s club. But the realism soon gives way to a succession of nightmares, all of them set in the same inescapable club.
Act I scene 2, in which Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda is stolen away by the courtiers as a plaything for the Duke, is staged with Rigoletto nodding fitfully in his chair after a hard day’s work. He becomes the archetypal bitter employee, dreaming of killing his boss, paranoid for the security of his family.
Such an interpretation will invariably divide opinion, and its logic may be easier to follow if you already know the opera. But – some clunky scene changes aside – we found it on the whole successful, concentrating rather than dissipating the ironies of the drama and the pathos of Rigoletto’s humiliating position as jester to a tyrant who, simply because he is born rich and beautiful, always has the last laugh.
In any case, drama in opera is not just about sets and staging. It’s also about singing, and in this respect the new ENO Rigoletto is pretty superlative.
What Barry Banks as the Duke lacks in looks he makes up in beauty of tone. Anna Christy is a radiant Gilda, combining the youthful innocence so necessary to act the part with the vocal heft needed to sing it. Yet the undoubted highlight was the young Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey in the title role. Having done something to redeem ENO’s soporific production of the Pearl Fishers in 2010, he acted and sang for his life on the opening night of Rigoletto. We shall surely, hopefully, hear this effortlessly generous voice more in years to come.
Rigoletto is playing until 14 March at the London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, WC2. Tickets £12-£110. We saw this production on a complimentary press ticket.