By James Karas
The English National Opera has revived Jonathan Miller’s production of Rigoletto at the London Coliseum. This production premiered in 1982 and that may rate as Methuselahian longevity in operatic production history but Franco Zeffirelli’s La Boheme (1981) may claim priority. An attempt to replace it was quickly shelved.
Miller imagined Rigoletto as taking place in New York’s Little Italy during the 1950’s where the show was run by the Mafia. The Duke of Mantua becomes a Mafia don and everyone is having a grand time is a classy bar where Rigoletto is the caustic bartender. He lives in a tenement with his daughter across the street from Ceprano (Andri Bjorn Robertsson), the man whose beautiful wife (Joanne Appleby) the Don fancies and whom Rigoletto ridicules.
Nicholas Pallesen and Sydney Mancasola in Rigoletto from ENO
Placing the opera in a Mafioso setting was an inspired idea and there have been numerous re-imagining since them. The latest Metropolitan Opera production set the opera in a Las Vegas casino. In Miller’s Little Italy the men are dressed in well-pressed suits, the women wear beautiful gowns and the atmosphere of power and decadence under the control of an absolute boss works well.
Baritone Nicholas Pallesen is young and impressive as Rigoletto. When he struts around the stage begging the heartless Mafiosi for his daughter he is moving and when he discovers the trick played on him at the end of the opera he is heart-wrenching. A fine vocal and acting performance.
Sydney Mancasola is an up and coming lyric soprano that gives a good accounting of herself as Gilda. She has the same constraints as the others in singing in English but we like her voice and believe that as Gilda she is nice girl but not too swift in her love of the dissolute Mafia boss.
Tenor Joshua Guerrero made his London debut with this production and he displayed the swagger and devil-may-care attitude of the Don with gusto. He is a young singer honing his skills and deserves kudos for his singing especially executing “La donna è mobile” in a “strange” language.
The question of whether opera should be sung in English rather than its language of composition is not discussed as frequently now as it used to be. The arrival of surtitles has made watching non-English opera much easier. Besides even opera sung in English, relies or surtitles to be properly understood.
The production is sung in English with surtitles because without them we will not understand every word that is sung and not know exactly what is happening.
Joshua Guerrero and Sydney Mancasola
What is the effect of listening to a familiar work in English? It is mixed. The initial issue is that we are simply used to hearing Rigoletto performed in Italian. Many of the arias are very familiar with the result that we know some of the lyrics by heart. But even if we get past familiarity, there are issues.
The fundamental issue is the difference between the structures of Italian and English. We need the musicality of Italian and those open vowels that let the singers belt out those notes and emotions with abandon. When sung in English it frequently sounds like the singer is fighting impediments as if going through mud when he needs a flat meadow. A simple phrase like “io l’amo” with that “a” and “o” gives the singer scope for expression. Try singing “I love him” and you get some mileage from the “o” and feel you have tripped over something when you try to get anything out of “him.” Try singing “mia figlia” and then “my daughter” and you get a further idea of the difficulty.
Nevertheless the singers in this production soldiered on and we followed them despite the obvious difficulties.
The ENO Orchestra was conducted by Sir Richard Armstrong. Patrick Robertson and Rosemary Vercoe were the designers.
If the production has not aged, Jonathan Miller gives a good impression of being past middle age. The 82-year old, leaning on a cane, came on stage with Elaine-Tyler-Hall, the Revival Director, for a bow and was greeted with a thunderous ovation. Well deserved.
Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi, directed by Jonathan Miller, opened on February 2 and will be performed nine times in repertory on various dates until February 28, 2017 at the London Coliseum, St. Martin’s Lane, London. www.eno.org