A little bit of Italian

Tom Sutcliffe on disappointing productions of Rigoletto and Don Giovanni

Both Rigoletto and Don Giovanni, central opera repertoire works given new productions at English National Opera and Covent Garden, were poorly executed, disappointingly cast, indifferently conducted, and it seems to me extremely worrying indications that opera in Britain is heading downhill fast. This may be good news for your budget. Do not expect much and if you want to try and enjoy opera go for singers you trust, and do not assume you will find those oftener at the Garden or ENO or Glyndebourne. Welsh National and Opera North may be a better bet.

Christopher Alden’s Rigoletto, borrowed (like his tasteless charmless ENO Fledermaus in September) from Toronto, was replacing Jonathan Miller’s classic ‘Little Italy’ production. Its only redeeming feature was the superlative grand-scale Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey in the title role with his creamy voice, fine acting and always understandable words: as charismatic and compelling a presence as Terfel’s Figaro 20 years back. Michael Levine’s single set design was a Victorian wood-panelled gentleman’s club filled with leather settees and Turkey carpets. Hopeless for the narrative, which requires contrasted worlds for Rigoletto’s private life as against the poisonous public role as court jester that he plays and hates, and the premises of the low-life knife-ready diabolical publican Sparafucile (Peter Rose not spine-chilling) whom he hires to murder the Duke but who with devastating inevitability kills Gilda as a substitute ‘body’ instead. The moral is that Rigoletto has forgotten ‘Vengeance is mine saith the Lord,’ and the boomerang returns to destroy everything he is living for.

Stale and unremarkable

The central reality of Verdi’s complex and profound masterpiece is that the wicked Duke’s charm and genuine feeling for the innocent Gilda is ironically the only light in the darkness. Everything else is false including the Duke’s irresistible ‘La donna e mobile’ and Gilda’s so touching ‘Caro nome’. Monterone’s curse shows Rigoletto how corrupt his work is. The ending in a good production is devastating – Verdi understood a father’s feeling (having lost both his wife and two children to disease).

But Barry Banks, who can sing the notes better than Arthur Davis did in the Miller staging when new, has little of Davis’s romantic style, and Anna Christy as Gilda was just a cypher. Alden’s approach was stale and unmemorable, Graeme Jenkins’s conducting no better. There was no life in this approach, even if the furniture was competently moved and the crowd scenes formed striking parades.

At Covent Garden Kasper Holten’s Don Giovanni was his second bite at the piece (of which he has made a film). It was also a second time around for Es Devlin, designer on this production, collaborating with him for the first time. I worked as the dramaturg with Es on a popular Keith Warner production of this opera (with Gerald Finley charming in the title role) which was taken by Holten for Operaan in Copenhagen. It was in 2006 that we made this interpretation at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, a staging that was very much Es’s doing – set in a hotel with peasants as valets and chambermaids, and Leporello at the front desk. The comedy and ideas all worked.

There were problems in the Royal Opera casting. Malin Byström as Anna never enunciated clearly a single word of her Italian text, and her timbre was Pekinese-like rather than tragic. A good example of how to sing, and to sing Italian, was right beside her in the shape of Antonio Poli’s Ottavio. Véronique Gens might have been fine as Elvira, though her performance was cold and grand, rather than bewildered and abandoned. The downmarket Leporello was uninteresting. The Polish Don, Mariusz Kwiecień, was not good at words either, lacked charm, and showed scant interest in his women. So little on stage made sense.


During the overture video designer Luke Halls had the names of all Giovanni’s well-loved sex partners written up mechanically on the imposing architectural street façade at the front of the stage. My heart sank when the knifing of the Commendatore was answered by the video designer with red liquid spreading over the architecture – as if it needed explaining.

Holten made Zerlina and Masetto’s nuptials look like a bourgeois Scandinavian wedding. No peasants please. None of the opera’s characters came interestingly alive. The final scene suffered shocking musical cuts. The Don’s fate was less about the murdered Commendatore dragging him to hell, than about a guilty conscience driving him mad as he slips into convenient solipsism. And no jokes, though Mozart calls it dramma giocoso.

Because we have so few performing institutions, we have too few companies hiring the new and the young opera exponents of the UK. We also have a crisis of leadership in Britain in the live performing arts, because without permanent ensembles of performers in our theatre and opera (and since the subsidy that goes into these arts is really a kind of ‘project funding’) we have a dearth of English-born directors with experience of hiring artists and planning a programme that will serve the necessary museum function of such companies. Bad calls are not the last word maybe. But I believe the system needs fixing. ND