Rigoletto – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave after Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse [sung in Italian with English surtitles]
Rigoletto – Stephen Gadd
Gilda – Alison Langer
Duke of Mantua – Alessandro Scotto di Luzio
Sparafucile – Simon Wilding
Maddalena – Hannah Pedley
Giovanna – Georgia Mae Bishop
Count Ceprano – Benson Wilson
Countess Ceprano – Joanna Harries
Borsa – Mike Bradley
Monterone – Matthew Stiff
Marullo – Jacob Phillips
Court Usher – Samuel Snowden
Page – Annie George
Opera Holland Park Chorus
City of London Sinfonia
Cecilia Stinton – Director
Neil Irish – Designer
Jake Wiltshire – Lighting
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 30 May, 2023
Venue: Opera Holland Park, Kensington, London
Although Boris Johnson has now been out of Downing Street for nearly a year, his misdeeds in office again pose (with depressing, unsurprising predictability) a problematic legacy for the Government to deal with. Cecilia Stinton’s new production of Rigoletto for Opera Holland Park is apt, then, in turning the Duke of Mantua’s court into the Bullingdon Club – the infamous dining club at Oxford University, whose social exclusiveness and drunkenly boorish activities, even vandal, activities have often been reported in the media, but which came to wider public attention in Laura Wade’s play Posh, subsequently adapted as a film, The Riot Club. Johnson and David Cameron were members in their student days; Rishi Sunak wasn’t, but he rose through a similarly privileged educational background through one of England’s most prestigious public schools and Oxford, enabling his pursuit of a lucrative professional career, and even more lucrative marriage, before entering politics.
In knowledge of all of that, Stinton’s concept draws a clear and timely enough connection with the elitism of our leaders – sufficiently wealthy and privileged so as to be unconcerned with the same struggles and rules as everybody else – that it doesn’t have to be made explicit (and fortunately spares us Cameron’s encounter with a pig’s head). Rather, to deepen the theme, it draws the action back to the 1920s world of Brideshead Revisited, which famously distilled more approvingly the nonchalant world of Oxford’s upper class student body at that time (as seen through the middleclass eyes of Charles Ryder) and that sought to be emulated by young fogeys and groups like the Bullingdon Club since. The raucous activities of the latter are not so dissimilar from those perpetrated by the Duke’s cohort in the original scenario, added to here during the Prelude with a group of hearties seizing a more gentle, bookish undergraduate from his desk (evidently an ‘aesthete’ – the contrary type of student condescendingly alluded to by the would-be, laddish Johnson in once describing Cameron as a ‘girly swot’) and dunking him in a bucket of water. Stinton probably means to recall the memorable episode in Waugh’s novel when such a mob come to hurl Anthony Blanche into a fountain, but he successfully deflects and embarrasses those ‘meaty boys’ with his sharp, ironic wit.
In this collegiate context Rigoletto fits in credibly as a scout – retainers who typically even lived in Oxford colleges to serve students, as well as dons, at parties and functions like butlers in a close-knit domestic arrangement that continued until well after the Second World War, and so it is quite plausible that he should be involved in a student club in this way. Tellingly he plunders books from the students to give to Gilda, ensconced at home and trying to improve herself by study. But being poor and female at that time, she has as little chance of infiltrating the fortress-like portals of the university as Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure did only a few generations earlier, teaching himself Greek in a futile attempt to be admitted into Christminster (i.e. Oxford).
Despite a vivid production, the cast is musically more mixed, and doesn’t live up to the same degree of inventiveness. Stephen Gadd evinces a gravelly weariness in the title role from the start, but he seems to choke back some notes within his vocal lines like a glottal stop or pulls them down an octave, so that the music doesn’t ring out with the urgency that it should, especially in what should be the thrilling expression of revenge in ‘Sì, vendetta’. Clearly Alessandro Scotto di Luzio encompasses the requisite ardour of the cynical, exploitative Duke in his singing, but he isn’t on best form here, his performance somewhat strained and effortful, and a little underneath the notes at climaxes. Alison Langer is spindly in voice as Gilda, and although supple could exude more rounded passion and vigour, at least before the point that she is stabbed when a Violetta-like fragility becomes more suitable.
It is Simon Wilding’s fluently sly Sparafucile (the hired assassin) and his sister, Hannah Pedley’s colourful Maddalena, who bring more charisma to the action, at the inn in Act Three to which the Duke has ventured, seemingly after a hunting party. Matthew Stiff exerts some depth of tone, if not so much force, as Monterone – here a scandalised don or master of the college where the Duke’s activities occur.
Slightly reduced personnel among the City of London Sinfonia results in a fairly mellow interpretation of the music. As if in compensation for that, Lee Reynolds takes some sections a touch too swiftly, such as Gilda’s ‘Caro nome’, working against the pathos and tenderness which should arise to draw out a more emphatic contrast with the drama’s tragedy. But he does elicit those qualities ably from the translucent sound of the strings, not least in the ethereal strains which accompany Gilda’s dying words as she slowly removes herself from the stage like the soul soaring to heaven that she envisages. A couple of sequences at the Duke’s party which opens the opera are rendered through a crackly gramophone to evoke the 1920s, rather than by an offstage band, which is a good idea in theory, but the dim sound dampens dramatic tension.
If the musical elements are patchy, the production makes an aptly mordant comment upon current political affairs while also adroitly engaging with and refreshing one of Verdi’s most-performed operas.
Further performances to June 24