Salzburger Landestheater, Haus für Mozart

Verdi, Rigoletto 

The Salzburg Landestheater put on a musically-excellent performance of Verdi‘s Rigolettoin the Haus für Mozart, for a rare Sunday afternoon show.  The production showcased two young stars, Ramë Lahaj (from Kosovo) as the Duke, and Eri Nakamura (from Japan) as Gilda.  Lahaj’s voice was big and lyrical, as he inhabited his role.  Nakamura’s voice, large enough to fill the hall, nevertheless came across innocent and almost delicate.  The Italian Ivan Inverardi’s experienced Rigoletto nuanced but bold baritone portrayed a tragic court jester, despite having to act around some atrocious staging (more on which below).

Young British conductor Adrian Kelly drove the orchestra along to depict the dark tragedy of this opera, setting the mood right from the overwhelming introduction.  In the draft, Verdi had originally titled this opera “The Curse” before settling on naming it after the court fool, but despite the opera’s lighter tuneful moments, it remains dark, permeated by evil.  Kelly’s musical direction never let this concept slip.

Unfortunately, the Landestheater contracted a German director to stage this production.  Nothing good ever comes from German (or German-trained) opera directors in the last half century, and today’s production was no exception.  Amélie Niermeyer explained in the program notes that since the censor forced Verdi to change the setting of the opera (based on a real-life jester and his king from early 16th Century France) to a fictionalized Italian town which could have been anywhere (in this case, Verdi chose Mantua), she saw no reason not to make this an opera about anti-Fascism, and move the setting to the 1940s and Salò, Italy (capital of the Italian Social Republic, a puppet state established in German-occupied northern Italy from 1943-1945).

Niermeyer set the action on the elevator landings of different floors in an apartment building.  It is unclear who the Duke was supposed to be – the program notes suggested he might be the building’s owner.  At any rate, the setting was impossible to pull off with the plot.  There was no “outside” and characters had to remain on the landing where they were on set with action they should not have been in the same room for.  This made some scenes especially difficult, which the director resolved in strange ways (such as having Gilda, and then Rigoletto after her, get into the middle of the Duke’s love scene with Maddalena; or even the abduction scene where Rigoletto somehow does not realize he is in his own apartment – or at least the elevator landing where he sleeps with Gilda – and yes, there was a suggestion that maybe he does sleep with his daughter).  The final scene took place on the roof, with the Duke sleeping in a deck chair while the rest of the action took place (and somehow he never got wet in the storm), exiting via the elevator after patting Rigoletto on the shoulder.

None of this made much sense, but it also destroyed the tragic character of Rigoletto, who is very much the product of his time in history.  Put him into the Salò Republic and he becomes a willing accomplice of the Duke and really rather despicable.  His tragedy is that he is stuck as a court jester who knows too much and tries to stay alive and protect his daughter from an evil world, an unenviable situation.  This Rigoletto was just ridiculous, and a caricature of a bad man.  Inverardi was brave to try to give him back some of his character development.

However, this was not the worst of the staging.  During the first scene, in order to demonstrate the depravity of the Duke, Niermeyer populated the stage with prepubescent boys and girls in various stages of undress.  This was not artistic license.  This was child pornography.  Normally I favor deporting German opera directors; this time I’d suggest arresting her.

Staatsoper

Verdi, Rigoletto

Back to the Staatsoper this evening for Verdi’Rigoletto.  I saw this same production a few years ago, but a promising cast and an available ticket brought me back.

The British baritone Simon Keenlyside portrayed Rigoletto almost acrobatically – rolling a cartwheel to make his onstage entrance during the Prologue.  He did not stay still, although his actions never became hectic or frantic but rather measured, as a good court jester would understand. He also successfully navigated the two mutually-exclusive halves of Rigoletto’s tortured personality: the professional fool who is hated by the court for speaking truth and the doting father who tries, ultimately unsuccessfully, to protect his treasured daughter from an evil world.

Young Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko made her Staatsoperdebut as Rigoletto’s dear Gilda.  Her voice and her demeanor graced the stages suitably delicately, as appropriate.  Her range impressed, but while her upper and lower registers produced the purest tones, her middleregister wobbled quite a bit too much.

As the Duke of Mantua, American Matthew Polenzani cut a dashing figure – a one dimensional character played to the fullest. Kurt Rydl, a menacing Sparafucile, and Elena Maximova as Maddalena rounded out the main ensemble roles.  Sorin Coliban, in the minor role of the Count of Monterone, deserves special mention, in that his character, although having only two brief appearances on stage, curses Rigoletto, thus driving the plot and sending Rigoletto into ultimate despair.  Without a strong curse, the whole plotcan collapse.  Coliban’s commanding voice projected from the back of the stage, hitting and devastating poor Rigoletto.  Keenlyside picked up the plot from there.

Jesús López-Cobos conducted the State Opera Orchestra from the pit, but appeared to have a smile on his face as he looked over the orchestra to the active and fully-engaged cast.

Novaya Opera

Verdi, Rigoletto

Tonight was Verdi’Rigoletto at the Novaya Opera.

Musically, it met the standards I have come to expect from the Novaya. Conductor Yevgeny Samoilov drove the performance, and had an excellent sense of theater.

On stage, there was less of a sense of theater. The staging was simplified traditional, but the director had no sense of drama. Characters essentially stood around, or moved around the stage independent of events. This is possibly because the production was originally a co-production with an Italian festival, and since Italian opera singers tend towards the obese, perhaps it was designed to have minimal motion. However, Russian opera singers tend towards the starving artist look, and are much more agile, so they should have adapted the stage directions accordingly.

Singing was musically good, but it is hard to act with such lousy blocking. As a result, some of the cast did not even try (the Gilda, for example, seemed comically incapable of knocking on Sparafucile’s door in time with the knocking sound in the score).

Rigoletto was an exception.  Vasily Svyatkin, a big bear of a Russian baritone, acted with his voice, even when the stage director gave him odd blockings. He was the highlight.

Nurlan Bekmukhamvedov, as the Duke, also had a very pleasant voice, but it was a tad too high: he had absolutely no trouble hitting all the high notes beautifully, but without the lower register his voice did not fully resonate. Volume was fine, just not so much depth.

That may be my last performance in Moscow until the Fall. June is a thin month, and then I won’t be back here until October.

Highlights from 2004

Highlights

Prior to 2010 I did not write regularly.  I found most records from 2009 (now posted on this blog), but right now the only reliable musical notes from 2004-2008 are in my annual year-end highlight summaries, so I am posting these until I locate more in my archives.

Best opera production: Verdi, Rigoletto, Wiener Staatsoper (September). Ensemble cast with no particular stars, this was an example of why no opera house in the world comes close to comparing to the Staatsoper.

Worst opera production: Johann Strauß (Sohn), Eine Nacht in Venedig, Wiener Volksoper (September). I am really sick of these German opera directors who don’t bother to read the book before they stage an opera. This staging was set, for no apparent reason, in a shopping mall outside Vienna. The stupidity of the staging took away the charm of the music. The Volksoper is becoming far too artsy.

Best concert: Schoenberg, Gurrelieder, Wiener Philharmoniker under Mariss Jansons in the Musikverein (May). Reduced me to tears. Particularly devastating was the Wood Dove’s narrative (with Waltraud Meier). I recovered in time to follow the orchestra across the Ring to the Staatsoper for Verdi’s Falstaff starring Bryn Terfel two hours later.

Worst concert: nothing I attended was truly bad, but if I had to select something as “least good,” I would say the Bayerisches Staatsorchester playing a concert of Richard Strauss in the Vienna Musikverein (September). Zubin Mehta is either charismatic or sloppy, and in this case the Bavarians sounded like the New York Philharmonic at the end of his tenure there. The orchestra could play this music in its sleep, and I don’t get these sorts of concerts in Pristina, so I did not suffer too much. The Viennese public applauded politely.