Sunday, July 7, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

The Aix-en-Provence Festival opened its 65th season with a resoundingly successful production of Rigoletto directed by Canadian Director Robert Carsen.

Rigoletto has been placed in many venues from a casino in Las Vegas to a high-rise apartment building in New York but Carsen’s vision and interpretation surpasses all of them. With the assistance of dramaturge Ian Burton, Carsen makes Rigoletto a clown in a circus. The scenes that usually take place in the palace of the Duke of Mantua are transferred to a circus rink. The courtiers of Mantua sit in the stands of the rink or come down to the performance area.

Carsen enriches the production with numerous brilliant strokes and inventive touches that make Verdi’s chestnut look like a new work. A few examples.

During the brief overture, Rigoletto steps on the stage in front of the curtain carrying a blanket. He opens the blanket and reveals the naked body of a woman. It is only a limp mannequin, but we know that it is the corpse of his daughter. Rigoletto grabs the mannequin, the curtain opens and he joins the partying courtiers in the first scene of the opera. The mannequin becomes his toy and he even simulates copulation with it.

The court of the Duke of Mantua or in this case the circus rink is a full-blown bordello. We have acrobats doing some magnificent somersaults and other athletic deeds but we also see bare-breasted women who are engaged in acts of debauchery. The courtiers are dressed in tuxedos and Rigoletto is dressed as a clown.

Carsen carries the circus metaphor brilliantly to the end of the opera. When the courtiers abduct Gilda and bring her to the palace, the Duke visits her. I suppose the courtiers have already gang-raped her and at times I am not certain what the Duke does when he sees her in a private room. Carsen knows and practically shows us that the Duke has sex with her. In fact, he takes off all his clothes, yes, all, (but does not reveal his front to us), somebody puts a housecoat on him and he climbs a ladder to his private box to (further?) defile Gilda.

When Gilda comes down, disheveled and disgraced, she is wearing the Duke’s housecoat. In fact, she keeps it right to the end. This woman is in love with that man, period.

I will mention one more brilliant directorial trick. When Monterone (a sonorous Arutjun Kotchinian) complains about his daughter being disgraced by the Duke, he brings her body on stage. He curses Rigoletto, of course, and that curse haunts the jester to the bitter end until it is fulfilled. When Rigoletto realizes that Sparafucile (a scary and excellent bass Gabor Bretz) killed Gilda instead of the Duke, the body of Monterone’s daughter is lowered on the stage. This is directorial imagination at its best.

Baritone George Gagnidze made a marvelous Rigoletto. His deep mellow voice was full of pathos and he was magnificent as the clown whose heart is breaking. He does not have a hunched back since his “deformity” is to be a clown.

Tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz was a very disappointing Duke. He is youthful and agile but his voice had no colour, no feeling and nothing convincing about him. He sounded strained in the upper register and only adequate in the middle.

The best singing of the evening was done without a doubt by soprano Irina Lungu as Gilda. She fits the part physically and has a lovely voice. Her “Caro nome” was full of tenderness, beautiful phrasing and a delight to hear. Gilda may be stupid but Lungu made her believable and very attractive. A marvelous performance.

Since we are at the circus, we have acrobats and dancers that perform real acrobatics at several points in the opera including during the kidnapping of Gilda. Together with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, this production required a small army of people.

The London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda played Verdi’s dramatic music superbly.

The set by Radu Boruzescu consisted of the circus rink and stands as indicated. There was a box with a curtain in the middle of the stands where the Duke was initially seen. The stands remained in place throughout. Gilda’s residence consisted of a small camper on wheels. There was no need for a ladder here but the courtiers pretended that they climbed up for the kidnapping. There were a few such incongruities for those that were paying strict attention to the words of the libretto.

Once again, Carsen has taken a very familiar work and imposed his vision on it and produced a new opera while being faithful to the old. A superb achievement.  

Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi opened on July 4 and will be performed ten times until July 27, 2013 at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.

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