Terrific telling of Verdi's tragic tale


Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


SIMON Keenlyside makes the role of Rigoletto his own in this Welsh National Opera production of Verdi's once dangerous opera.

Any suspicion he is perhaps too young for the role of the embittered hunchback jester avenging for his daughter's honour  are dispelled by his wonderful baritone voice and masterful acting.

Voice and acting ability are not always the best of bedfellows in opera but in Keenlyside you get both. Limping around the stage with a club foot and stiff leg - he adjusted the prominent strapping regularly as if a man in constant pain - Keenlyside's Rigoletto was always a sad, tortured character.

His meeting with Sparafucile, the hired assassin sung with the velvety bass if David Soar, showed him shuffling, Richard III like, alone and friendless, to visit his daughter, Gilda and slowly you find yourself feeling for this sad, pathetic creature.

When you find he has hidden Gilda away from the lecherous clutches of his employer the Duke of Mantua then you know this is not going to have a happy ending.

The Duke is played by big voiced tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones who was last seen here, incidentally, as Don José in Carmen in March.

It might require a giant leap rather than a stretch of imagination for his disguise as a poor, lovesick student to work for the seduction of Gilda but with his fine voice audiences are willing to pretend.

American soprano Sarah Coburn as Gilda is a delight and the vocal star of the show. Her voice is as clear and pure as the ring of a cut crystal glass whether at full power or soft and sad and is always controlled.

Bobby sox Gilda the innocent daughter of Rigoletto, a part sung beautifully by Sarah Coburn

 She has the voice of an angel and like Keenlyside she brings a fine acting dimension to the role making the pair of them believable characters as well as fine voices. Her first appearance in white socks and headband like a character from Happy Days gave her an air of innocence and just a small rip on the shoulder of her pyjama top was enough to convey that the duke had had his wicked way setting revenge in motion with its tragic consequences - this is opera after all.

The opera is based on Victor Hugo's 1832 play Le roi s'amus, The King's Fool,  which portrayed Francis 1 of France as a womanising  lecher with the morals of an alley cat . . . he presumably had bad points as well. 

The censors though saw in it insults to the then current king, Louis-Phillippe, the last king of France incidentally, and after just one performance the plays was banned and remained so in France for the next half century.

Verdi had similar problems in the diplomatic minefield of the 1850s and it was only when he changed the action from the court of the King of France to the dukedom of Mantua that the Austrian censors were appeased and the opera opened in triumph in Venice in 1851 with the Duke's cynical aria, La donna è mobile, becoming an instant hit  and top of the Venetian pops.

Director James Macdonald's version was first performed in 2002 and moves the action yet again this time from Italy to Washington with the Duke implied as President whether it is set in the 60s or 90s - Kennedy or Clinton - you can take your pick. Both had their dalliances with affairs of the flesh I seem to remember.

Simon Keenlyside as Rigoletto pleads with the suits for the release of his daughter

But back at Verdi where the fine male courtiers become double breasted suits, whether mafia, FBI or just plain old senators and congressmen you  can take your pick.

Robert Innes Hopkins' sets provide sharply angled perspectives cleverly lit by Simon Mills and Paul Woodfield. We have an office party, Gilda's home which could easily have been bought in from West Side Story, complete with a settee which looked like the bench seat from a 54 Buick, the Oval office and a hit man's hovel which looked a little out of place when it was covered with its dirty cloth wall.

From a purely practical point of view, its position as a rather unattractive lump did make the final curtain calls an awkward proposition for performers who had to manoeuvre their way around it.

The whole opera was held together by the fine WNO orchestra  under Pablo Heras-Casado who helped provide an extremely enjoyable evening. Rigoletto rides again on Friday, 09-07-10.

Roger Clarke



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