La Scena Musicale

Friday, 30 September 2011

COC Rigoletto Combines Superb Singing with Idiosyncratic Staging

Bottom: COC Rigoletto (seated center: Dimitri Pittas, Mireille Asselin; right standing: Quinn Kelsey) Photo: Michael Cooper

Top: Ekaterina Sadovnikova, Quinn Kelsey (Photo: Michael Cooper)

by Joseph K. So

Verdi: Rigoletto

Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto)
Ekaterina Sadovnikova (Gilda)
Dimitri Pittas (Duke)
Phillip Ens (Sparafucile)
Kendall Gladen (Maddalena)
Robert Pomakov (Monterone)
Megan Latham (Giovanna)

Johannes Debus, conductor
COC Orchestra and Chorus

September 29, 2011 7:30 p.m.

The COC fall season continued last evening with the premiere of its second production, Verdi's Rigoletto at the Four Seasons Centre. It is a "new" co-production between the COC and ENO, although this Christopher Alden-Michael Levine Rigoletto actually had its genesis in the 2000 Lyric Opera of Chicago. At the time, it generated a great deal of controversy from the media and angry responses from the more conservative patrons at LOC. It is telling that Chicago abandoned this Regie-driven production when Rigoletto was revived in 2006, replaced by a much more traditional take on the Verdi warhorse. Given that the COC has increasingly moved toward the Regieoper aesthetic, would this production be more favorably received in Toronto? Like everyone else, I was curious.

Contrary to the austere and abstract approach of Carsen's Iphigenie currently (and his Orfeo last spring) with their timeless quality, this Rigoletto has an opulent period set designed by Michael Levine. It appears to have been time-shifted from the Italian Renaissance to late Victorian period. The unit set depicts what Christopher Alden describes as "the gaming room" - a sort of men's club for the privileged, a space that symbolizes "power, control, and domination," one that corrupts the male participants in a society that subjugates women. Alden, in the Director's Notes, suggests that Rigoletto is unable to separate his public life (as a participant in the power game) and his private life (as a loving father to Gilda). Thus the major theme in his concept is male dominance and chauvinism, a fair enough observation of European society in the historic past. But would this overriding concept be sufficient to sustain an opera with a complex story and plenty of action?

As the curtain rises, Rigoletto is sleeping on a comfy armchair while the opera proceeds on stage with him immobile downstage on the right. This bit of staging suggests that the action on stage is but a dream of Rigoletto. The unit set hugs the three sides, making the staging area the biggest I've seen of any production at the FSC. This is problematic as a lot of scenes that require intimacy are awkwardly staged, given that there is no rotating platform. Hampered by this immovable unit set, unresolved actions as required by the story are simply avoided by someone drawing a black curtain across the width of the stage. In short, this production cries out for eye-popping stagecraft rather than something as low-tech and lame as a black curtain. More importantly, I find this production to be quite a distortion of the libretto, rendering it at times illogical and incoherent. There are just too many silly directorial touches. The Duke clutching a cushion to his crotch while singing his aria elicited laughs of derision from the audience. Same thing for making Giovanna more than the routine comprimaria. I agree that a warhorse like Rigoletto can do with some "freshening up" but any concept production is supposed to illuminate the music and the text, and to give us fresh insights into the story. There are moments when the text does not match the action on stage. So I have to say Alden's concept have not achieved these goals. At least compared to Carsen's Orfeo and Iphigenie, this Rigoletto doesn't work nearly as well.

If there are reservations in terms of the production, there aren't any when it comes to the musical side of things. On opening night, top vocal honours went to the magnificent Rigoletto of Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey. What a voice! He has beauty of tone, ample dramatic intensity, volume without resorting to pushing, youthful timbre, and most of all , his is an authentic Verdi baritone, a rare breed. His Rigoletto recalls none other than a young Louis Quilico. A big guy, he's quite free with his body. Unlike many heavyset opera singers, Kelsey is not afraid to throw himself around the stage, fall down etc. I hope he will come back to the COC - voices like that don't grow on trees. Also making a big impression was Russian soprano Ekaterina Sadovnikova, who fully encompassed the role of Gilda vocally and dramatically, singing with lovely high pianissimos, and no traces of the pronounced vibrato and metallic timbre that are common in Slavic voices. Her 'Caro nome' was particularly lovely. As the Duke, American tenor Dimitri Pittas sang with ringing tone and Italianate timbre. If one were to nitpick, he skipped a couple of high options. But it was an exciting performance and he was well applauded. Canadian bass Phillip Ens was evil incarnate as Sparafucile, a role he must have sung a hundred times. American mezzo Kendall Gladen was a suitably sultry, Carmen-like Maddalena, despite some hollow low notes. Bass Robert Pomakov as Monterone is luxury casting, showing once again he is a fine character singer with an unusually fine voice. COC Music Director Johannes Debus defied typecasting as a German opera specialist by bringing idiomatic style, verve and excitement to the Italian repertoire. The men's chorus under Sandra Horst was its usual excellent self. No, this isn't a Rigoletto for the ages, and I wouldn't want this to be anyone's first exposure to this work. Fans of concept productions will find this intriguing, but personally I prefer something that allows the audience some freedom of interpretation.

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