In February, a group of OBERTO staff, undergraduates, MA students and PhD students attended English National Opera’s new production of Rigoletto, directed by Christopher Alden, at the London Coliseum. Below three students respond to the production.
‘With many details of James Hepokoski’s chapter ‘Staging Verdi’s Opera: the Single “Correct” Performance’ from Alison Latham and Roger Parker’s Verdi in Performance fresh in my mind from the morning’s MA seminar, I was eager to see and hear the extent to which Christopher Alden would deal with the four elements of dramma which Verdi had wished to have ‘interact with exquisite balance: text, music, vocal display, and stage picture’. In fact, I made a conscious effort to think about how these elements worked together throughout this performance of Rigoletto. Although my ability to do this was inconsistent, so was the interaction of elements. While the stage picture was almost always pleasing, it was also confusing: having one basic set made it difficult to discern which location we were in – the Duke’s court accommodation, Rigoletto’s own home, or the inn where Sparafucile is going to kill the Duke – and the contrast between these locations seems important, especially as Gilda’s apparent complete separation from Rigoletto’s life at court is fundamental to the story.
Some aspects of Alden’s production affected me especially, and even after seeing three more productions (on DVD) since, these particular strengths remain significant. The appearance of the tableau which opened Act I brought to life the colours, light, and aspects of composition of two paintings I saw recently: Jean Béraud’s La Salle de rédaction du Journal des débats (1889), and Henri Fantin-Latour’s Hommage à Delacroix (1864). Both of these paintings depict closed, all-male groups in a way that is unique to the nineteenth century. While both these pictures are representative of completely different social situations to that of the Duke of Mantua’s court in Rigoletto, the staging at the beginning of Act I was powerfully evocative of the nineteenth-century milieux of these paintings. In this context the manner in which the women of Rigoletto deported themselves, and their interaction with the men, was reminiscent of Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863), although in this particularly production of Rigoletto, remarkably, nobody on stage was ever quite naked. Here, the mise-en-scène was ingeniously suggestive of social situations in which the veneer of propriety is very, very thin, reminding us that particular forms of hypocrisy which now we may associate with the nineteenth century may not be so foreign after all. Happily, these qualities of the production compensated for the blinding chaos at the end of Act II, and the inconsistencies at the end of Act III: Rigoletto and Sparafucile’s discussion of how and where to dump the body in the river lost a lot of its significance, and the moment of horror and despair when Rigoletto hears that the Duke is not dead was diluted by the unambiguous presence of the Duke, sauntering across the stage. These objections aside, this production of Rigoletto was an engaging and disturbing approach to an opera whose themes have a contemporary resonance’.
‘The set was innovative and for the most part it worked with clever use of lighting but I thought that at the end in the final scene in which Gilda dies, the set lacked the intimacy that I have seen in other productions and which is important to the emotions being conveyed. Also when Sparafucile murders Gilda at the Inn, it was difficult to imagine an important change in location given that the set was the same’.
‘The sets were visually very impressive, evoking the atmosphere of a nineteenth-century gentleman’s club very effectively. The way that space and time were depicted within this set, however, did get a little confusing at times. Most impressive was the far simpler staging of the final scene, with Gilda lying on a plain white sheet in the centre of the stage. I found the contrast to the scale and detail of the previous sets very effective, and this made for a moving and powerful final scene’.