In 1851, Rigoletto was a challenge in all sorts of ways. For a start, it was based on Victor Hugo’s 1832 play Le roi s’amuse, a drama of 16th century royal debauchery which the 19th century authorities had promptly banned after its disastrous opening night. When Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave turned their attentions to the story a mere eighteen years later, there had been no cooling of the emotions. By shifting the setting to an obscure Duchy and altering some of the details, Verdi and Piave managed to evade the censors’ wrath, if not their disgust: "His excellency the Military Governor Gorzkowski deplores the fact that the poet Piave and the great maestro Verdi have not been able to find any scope for their talents other than the disgusting immorality and obscene triviality of the plot titled La Maledizione [or, The Curse, which was the Opera’s working title at that time]."
The story concerns events which transpire in the court of the Duke of Mantova, a cheerfully lecherous character who seems equally at ease romancing beautiful girls as simply having them brought to his court to be raped at his leisure. His court Jester, a hunchback named Rigoletto, is happy to cheer him on, and to leer as courtier Monterone’s own daughter becomes the Duke’s latest conquest. Before being dragged away to death row for his inevitable defiance, Monterone damns the Duke with a father’s curse. By various turns of fate, some contrived, some tragically inevitable, it is Rigoletto who finally stands over the body of his own beautiful daughter as the Duke sings the opera’s signature aria "la donna e mobile" off stage.
The lurid details of the plot were challenging enough for nineteenth century audiences, not to mention the political overtones and the explicit critique of libertine attitudes, but Rigoletto also represented a change in Verdi’s style. He had already found an audience for Nabucco (1842) and Macbeth (1847), but the comparatively straightforward structure and musical rhythms used in these and his other early works changed with Rigoletto. The plot was tight as a drum by comparison with most other operas, leaving little room for irrelevancy. There was no overture, there were no pauses for characters to sing their hearts out just so the audience could get to know them, no obvious climaxes (until the actual climax) or major set pieces–no space for self-indulgent ornamentation.
Linking each aria, duet, and chorus to significant plot and character developments, drawing the audience into the world as cannily and deliberately as a playwright, Verdi was reshaping how opera could be written.
Opera Ireland’s current production is directed with muscular force by Paris-born Olivier Tambosi. Bold set designs by Frank Philipp Schl�ssmann cut a clean line through the text, casting the court of the Duke in strong blues and reds through which all but one of the female characters drift on clouds of white costume designed by Elisabeth Gressel. The production begins with Verdi’s brief prelude, during which Belgian baritone Marcel Vanaud first appears as Rigoletto. He is not a hunchback, but an ordinary man in an ill-fitting suit, which he removes to don the costume of the Jester, his weariness and vulnerability emphasized as he stands there in his underwear, portly belly hanging over workaday boxer shorts. The curtains then twitch aside to reveal the chambers of the Duke, with courtiers dressed in red robes and powdered wigs. The floor is strewn with the discarded white skirts of anonymous conquests while the Duke (Romanian tenor Robert Nagy) ravishes Monterone’s daughter.
Though not as debauched or nearly radical as some productions have been (not in Ireland, mind you), there is enough meat to Tambosi’s direction to give the audience pause. There are some lovely design conceits that constantly draw attention to the dark heart of the story: a massive cut-out in the shape of the Duke frames the exit stage left; Gilda drapes herself in the (red) full length stage curtains which have hitherto blocked the space during her "dishonor," the whim of the Duke; the chorus lie as dead bodies half-hidden in refuse sacks at the front of the stage during Act III (set in an inn run by an assassin).
Vanaud has plenty of presence as Rigoletto, though the lack of true physical grotesquerie (no hump) does quell the fire of his tragedy just a little. Italian bass Carlo Signi does make a distinctive and surreal physical impression as the assassin Sparafucile. Balded, blanched and clad entirely in black as he slowly pads across the stage, his singing seemingly comes from the pits of hell. Paired up with Italian mezzo-soprano Monica Minarelli as Sparafucile’s (equally balded, equally blanched) sister Magdalena, he provides the final act with sobriety and terror in equal measure.
Nagy makes a convincingly rakish Duke, all bad boy smiles and willful ennui even as he sings of his "true love" for Gilda (Turkish soprano Yelda Kodalli) in Act I. Though the performances on the whole are good and the particularly tricky task of keeping Verdi’s emphasis on equality and balance has been accomplished, the loveliest voice on stage belongs to Kodalli. She delivers a clear and delicate characterization of Gilda’s complex and paradoxical emotions, shifting from the quietest of registers to the most ear-piercing without ever becoming bombastic. There is real depth to this voice, one which was a risk for Verdi, who usually did not entrust key roles to light sopranos. Kodalli’s performance here shows the nuance to which the composer was aspiring, and it is often breathtaking.