Revisionist directors don’t unite audiences. They have too many funny ideas. For some, the shoehorning of alien concepts into repertoire pieces is pure anathema; style too often eclipses substance, and there is the troubling implication that practitioners believe themselves to be fixing a broken canon. Christopher Alden has form in this regard. His production of Die Fledermaus last year imposed a Freudian reading of Strauss’ opera – an interesting idea but not one that worked. Its emphasis on its own cleverness tended to impede dramatic expression and distracted from the music. Alden’s Rigoletto is drawn from the same playbook, but whereas its predecessor plodded along here the results are thrilling.
One explanation for this success rests in its lighter touch. The director’s interests are identifiable but do not overbear, working in harmony with the action rather than dragging it off in unexpected directions. And whilst there are certainly moments when the transposition of Verdi’s tragedy from renaissance court to nineteenth-century gentleman’s club seems a little awkward, there has been no over-determined scramble to paper the cracks; instead, the contradictions are seen for what they are, presented with a knowing wink. This is consistent with an approach that elsewhere seeks to cut the bleakness of the material with certain gaiety – and as we well know, higher peaks can make for deeper troughs.
This is not to say that Alden has been otherwise hands-off. As well as reducing the number of locations in the plot to one, we quickly realise that the entire scenario has been shifted into past tense – the jester of the title interrogating his actions after the fact. This works for two reasons. Firstly, the libretto makes extensive use of dramatic irony; the audience is always one step ahead of the protagonist, himself fulfilling an unknown and macabre destiny. The move thus lends psychological depth. The intensity of Rigoletto’s fixation on a curse foretelling his downfall always seemed disproportionate, even if it adds historical colour. Alden renders it pathological, recasting the character’s obsession as denial for his own culpability. Secondly, setting the performance in a single, public room correlates with private facts already being known. It also permits Alden the chance to explore the theme of the subjugation of women in society – in particular, ideology’s production of complicity with one’s own repression – within an appropriate contextual framework.
Such reductionism would have threatened visual variety had the space not been so well employed. The salon is an attractive ensemble of oak panelling, tall ferns and gas-lamps, lit evocatively from the wings to suggest filtered morning light; furniture is deftly reconfigured between scenes to create new areas, which works well despite necessitating some fairly clumsy, extra-diegetic tableaux to buy time for stagehands. But simplicity has its rewards. The principal singers give superb performances and these are brought sharply into focus.
Quinn Kelsey delivers a rancorous, snivelly Rigoletto, at all times articulate and filling every nook of the auditorium with swollen baritone. He is thunderous when threatening; pitiful when required to plead. One highpoint amongst many came in the hunt for Rigoletto’s lost daughter. Kelsey shuffles nervously through the club, attempting to mask the hunchback’s anxiety from those he knows to be responsible for her disappearance. The stuttering music here later serves as the basis for a long lament when all his fears are realised, making the scene something of a focal point for the second and third acts.
Kelsey’s pantomime villainy is complimented by Anna Christy’s naturalistic movements and crystalline voice. This underpins a tense, mouse-like portrayal of Rigoletto’s daughter who yearns for independence but lacks the maturity to see it through. In all their guises, the female characters in Alden’s version are fundamentally innocent – their bid for freedom always withers of its own accord; similarly, patriarchal power is shown to be faulty, bisected by the ridiculous. In this, Barry Banks completes the triad. Whilst the tenor wanted for power in the opening scenes this was quickly found, his philandering, manipulative Duke becoming a little Napoleon. Singing his iconic aria La donna è mobile, Banks parades the stage in ill-fitting armour, thrusting his stubby sword with camp bravado.
This is not your classic Rigoletto then, but neither is it a reinvention. Some judicious decisions tease-out and emphasise the qualities that make the opera so beloved, and the precariousness of the resetting may remind us just how loosely opera’s conglomeration of art, music and theatre hang together anyway. Here, at least, no single element overwhelms. The cynic’s old adage that creative stagings are acceptible through closed eyes has no grounding. For even the most conservative patron, this is an opera to be seen, not only heard.