Last night was the big night – the premiere of David McVicar’s 2001 debaucherous production of Verdi’s devastating father-daughter opera. This night was dedicated to Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky who died last month battling with brain cancer. The legendary singer was originally intended to perform the role of Rigoletto for this season and the audience was respectful as his name was announced just before the first act.
Speaking of the crowd, they were rather restless this evening, particularly upstairs at the amphitheatre where three phones went off and several mobile screens beamed their light in ‘The Gods’ blinding those sitting nearest to them. Nonetheless, they soon piped down as the commencing scene took an interesting turn. Verdi’s grand music introduced lascivious men fascinating over female prostitutes at the court of Mantua – an orgy happening at every corner of the stage. Some members of the Royal Opera’s orchestra performed Verdi’s score behind the stage, creating a muffled sound as courtiers screamed merrily, enjoying each other’s intimate pleasures. This – obviously – made some members of the audience feel uncomfortable.
There, amongst these creatures of the underworld, American tenor Michael Fabiano graced the stage with his handsome, passionate and polished performance as a superior womaniser – the Duke. Despite initial problems synchronising with the music, his singing was squeaky clean and impressive, he clutched onto high notes for as long as he could, which left many viewers excited and eager to hear more of his voice. His depiction of the Duke was two-fold; on the one hand, his acting proved to show a wicked sexual predator, but his tenor voice made him a charming romantic – easy to fall for. (Just imagine a tenor version of Don Giovanni, sans murderer.)
Greek baritone Dimitri Platanias performed as the deformed court jester – the Duke’s disposable manservant, Rigoletto. Despite his physical disfigurement and unconditional love for his angelic daughter, it was hard to find any sympathy for Platanias’s character – a man who condones the vile behaviour of his master, berates others and insults their daughters. And this is what becomes of Rigoletto. For those who are not familiar with the tale of Rigoletto, Verdi wrote the opera in 1855 which is based on Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse, where both the play and opera were under scrutiny (the play was under state censorship) for its immoral depiction of court rulers. Rigoletto criticises and mocks Monterone, a father of one of the Duke’s victims, who in retaliation curses Rigoletto. This is where the real drama and unique mystery of the opera comes alive. We watch the scornful court jester, in utter ruin, destroy the life of the one family member he was trying to protect. Vocally, Platanias sang reasonably enough for the coarse role of Rigoletto, but Platinias shined the most by showing Rigoletto’s hidden demons.
Sofia Fomina is endearing and captivating as Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda. Her voice soared and presented glimmers of hope, even if we, the audience, knew the ending was going to be tragic. It is no wonder that Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave brought in the character of Gilda – one to create a contrast to the grotesque and brutish world of Rigoletto’s Mantua. Those particular moments of sustained vibrato Fomina sang was also a pleasure to hear. Her father-daughter duet with Platanias was ultimately moving – the singing was convincing and most certainly my favourite scene of the entire night.
Other notable singers include Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Nadia Krasteva as the assassin’s tarty sister with her highly temptatious scene with Fabiano that may have raised a few eyebrows at the opera house. And Italian bass Andrea Mastrioni’s singing as the incestuous brother and assassin was marvellous.
Designs by Michael Vale and costumes by Tanya McCallin take us through a sepia-laden world of, what appeared to be, 16th Century Mantua where most of the action was driven by the production’s active cast. The main scene setter is a rotating centrepiece divided into two parts: Rigoletto’s scrawny home and a wall of glass for the Duke’s court, which leaves more than enough to the audience’s imagination. No extra props needed.
The real drama of the story is tightly weaved together by Verdi’s music and the production’s strong ensemble of singers. Conductor Alexander Joel maintained an interesting flow of energy from the orchestra whose energy wasn’t expended all at once. In some scenes, the orchestra held back on an undercurrent of emotion while others were full of impact. The most, and loudest, we heard of the orchestra was at the very end when Rigoletto suffers the repercussions of his foolish actions. Overall, this was a memorable and truly classical event for the Royal Opera House. Despite its opening hiccups, it reminded me of the successes of Verdi’s unmatchable music. I have confidence that the production will get better as the run goes on.
Rigoletto is showing now at the Covent Garden until 16th January 2018. Purchase tickets here. The opera is also being shown in cinemas on January 16th 2018 (click here for more information) and broadcasted on BBC Radio 3 on 24th February 2018.
— Mary Grace Nguyen (@MaryGNguyen) 14 December 2017