Claus Guth’s revelatory “Rigoletto” production opened last month at the Opéra National de Paris, with Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey scheduled for ten performances in the title role. Illness required Kelsey to withdraw from his scheduled seventh and eighth performances on May 7 and 9th.
[Below: Director Claus Guth, left works with baritone Quinn Kelsey on Rigoletto’s gestures; edited image, based on an Eléna Bauer photograph, courtesy of the Opéra National de Paris.]
Ludovic Tézier’s Rigoletto
Substituting for Kelsey was French baritone Ludovic Tézier, taking on his 12th principal role for the Opéra de Paris. Tézier’s Rigoletto was robust and nuanced, vocally a masterful performance.
How closely Tézier realized Guth’s highly choreographed stage directions for the character, I was unable to discern, but the evening in totality seemed consistent with the psychological insights one expects from a Guth production. Guth peruses every line of Piave’s libretto and every note of Verdi’s music to plumb the deeper meanings of Verdi’s opera.
[Below: French baritone Ludovic Tézier; edited image, based on an Elie Ruderman photograph, courtesy of the Opéra National de Paris.]
Tézier’s Rigoletto wore the white mask that Guth has chosen as the symbol for his conceptualization of the character’s principal motivation – the preservation of his beloved daughter’s virtue in a corrupt and decadent society.
For his first scene with Rafal Siwek’s Sparafucile, he and Siwek are identically costumed, an effective addition to Rigoletto’s first introspective aria, Pari siamo. The “we, assassins with knife or the tongue, are the same” idea extended even to both wearing a jester’s cloak at the scene’s beginning.
Later, Tézier received a resounding ovation (including foot-stomping) for his beautifully sung, emotional Cortigiani, pleading for information on his daughter’s whereabouts with the courtiers who despise him.
Henri Bernard Buizarian’s Double for Rigoletto.
Actor Henri Bernard Buizarian performed throughout the evening as Rigoletto’s double, an avatar providing us insight into the thoughts, fears and emotional turmoil of the protective father/vicious jester.
Buizarian’s character appears at the opera’s beginning as a homeless person holding a cardboard box containing memories of Gilda. It is often Rigoletto’s double who reveals to us Guth’s insights into the opera’s deeper meanings.
[Henri Bernard Buizirian as Rigoletto’s double; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Opéra National de Paris.]
Michael Fabiano’s Duke of Mantua
Michael Fabiano filled the Bastille with an eloquently sung Duke of Mantua, his healthy tenor voice ideal for realizing the heroic lyric roles of Donizetti and Verdi.
Playing the central figure of a community immersed in decadence, Fabiano provided a lusty account of the serial womanizer.
Not content with his clandestine wooing of Gilda in Rigoletto’s apartment, Fabiano’s Duke uses his brief moments in hiding for some quick sex-play with Gilda’s governess Giovanna (in this production, Isabelle Druet costumed in a provocative woman’s dress suit). For her part in allowing the Duke surreptitious entrance to his desired prey, the disloyal Giovanna receives a diamond necklace.
[Below: New Jersey tenor Michael Fabiano; edited image of a publicity photograph, courtesy of the Opéra National de Paris.]
I have been fortunate to witness some of Fabiano’s early career-boosting successes in the Donizetti-Verdi repertory in San Francisco [Fleming, Fabiano, Frizza Fuel San Francisco Opera’s Flaming, Fulfilling First “Lucrezia Borgia” – September 23, 2011] and Santa Fe [Brenda Rae, Michael Fabiano Impress in Pelly’s Party-Time “Traviata” – Santa Fe Opera, July 29, 2013]
I continue to regard Fabiano as one of the 21st century’s most important operatic voices. I also regard his acting skills as noteworthy as well, in realizing the brilliant insights of such great opera directors as John Pascoe (for his Gennaro in “Lucrezia”), Laurent Pelly (for his Alfredo in “Traviata”), Francesca Zambello (for his “Luisa Miller” Rodolfo) [see Review: Michael Fabiano’s Star Ascends in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” – San Francisco Opera, September 11, 2015] and Guth (for his Duke).
Guth finds dramatic possibilities in every note of Verdi’s score, his felicitous staging of the Duke’s cabaletta allowing for distinctive performances by Fabiano and the Opera de Paris’ chorus of the usually cut stretta and cabaletta repeat.
Most memorable was Guth’s staging for the Duke’s two most famous melodic passages in “Rigoletto”, the smash-hit aria La donna è mobile, and the Duke’s leading part in the last scene’s famous Quartet.
Guth unifies aria and quartet by an innovation suggested by donna è mobile‘s second phrase – qual piuma al vento. Accompanying the Duke’s aria are a half-dozen women dancers, all plumed in feathers, who reappear as he begins the opening of the Quartet.
Fabiano’s Duke, Kasarova’s Maddalena and the feathered dancers perform the Duke’s and Maddalena’s half of the quartet as a big production number joined vocally by the stage-show’s audience of two – Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko’s Gilda and Tezier’s Rigoletto.
The ovations for Fabiano’s La donna è mobile and for the Quartet rocked the house.
[Below: the dominatrix Maddalena (Vesselina Kasarova, in black, left center) stands above the prostrate Duke of Mantua (Michael Fabiano, on floor) as the feathered dancers surround them; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Opéra National de Paris.]
[A Diversion Inspired by Kasarova’s Maddalena]
I feel compelled to note that Guth’s extraordinary staging of Kasarova’s Maddalena, although as far afield of the original stage directions as Patrick Kinmonth’s ill-conceived staging of Kasarova’s Dalila [see The Singing’s Erste Klasse, but Railroad-Themed “Samson et Dalila” Production Ends in Train Wreck – Deutsche Oper Berlin, May 29, 2011], advances one’s appreciation of Verdi’s and Piave’s genius, whereas Kinmonth’s indulgences are a travesty that provide no insights into a psychologically interesting French work.
To me, Guth’s and Kinmonth’s distinctive approaches to familiar operas demonstrate the difference between an operatic director who loves an opera’s score and libretto and one who appears to despise the task to which he has been assigned.
Olga Peretyatko’s Gilda
Russian coloratura soprano Olga Peretyatko created a beautifully sung, vulnerably acted Gilda. Her performance of Caro nome was, as it should be, a vocal highlight of the opera’s first half.
[Below: Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko; edited image of a publicity photograph, courtesy of the Opéra National de Paris.]
Guth’s conception of “Rigoletto” centers on the Rigoletto-Gilda relationship. Librettist Piave gives us the central idea of Rigoletto’s backstory – his deep love for his deceased wife and the care in which he has attempted to shelter their surviving daughter, Gilda, from society’s dangers.
Projections are introduced of first the mother and then the daughter at different ages running towards us through a flowery field.
Guth, seemingly inspired by the Verdi’s delicate orchestral accompaniment for Caro nome, introduced avatars for Gilda at three different ages, all in the white dresses of innocence, the oldest of the three dancing on her toes to the aria’s passages for flute.
The white dresses on Gilda and on the three girls representing her earlier ages are Rigoletto’s perceptions of who Gilda is, rather than the reality. Caro nome is not about childhood innocence, but about Gilda’s passionate feelings for Gualtier Maldé, whom she believes the disguised Duke to be. As the aria continues, Fabiano’s Duke moves onstage behind her caressing her erotically.
At opera’s end as the murdered Gilda dies, the image of the innocent girl is projected above the stage as Gilda, transformed, walks towards stage right.
[Below: the dying Gilda (Olga Peretyatko, right) walks across the stage as her childhood image is projected above the stage; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Opéra National de Paris.]
Beyond the emotional impact of Guth’s staging of Gilda’s death scene, there is an advantage for both Peretyatko and the audience. Instead of Gilda singing lying prostrate onstage in a sack, which may be a disadvantageous staging for a singer, she is ambulatory, allowing an audience to fully appreciate a soprano singing some of Verdi’s most ethereal music.
[Below: Gilda (Olga Peretyadko, left) leaves earth as Rigoletto (here, Quinn Kelsey, right) gestures to her in despair; edited image based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Opéra National de Paris.]
The Musical Performance
In addition to the stellar performances by Tézier, Fabiano, Peretyatko and Kasarova noted above, there were noteworthy performances by the sonorous Rafal Siwek as Sparafucile, Mikhail Kolelshvili as the Count of Monterone, the Marullo of Michal Partyka, and Matteo Borsa of Christophe Berry. The smaller roles were well done by Isabelle Druet (Giovanna), Tiago Matos (Count Ceprano), Andreea Soare (Countess Ceprano), Adriana Gonzalez (Paggi) and Florent Mbia (Usciere di Corte).
Maestro Nicola Luisotti led the Opéra de Paris Orchestra and Chorus in an affectionate and insightful reading of Verdi’s score. After a memorable run, this was Luisotti’s (and Fabiano’s) last performance of this production in Paris, as both artists are scheduled in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” at the San Francisco Opera four weeks later.
Claus Guth’s production
Claus Guth’s psychological insights into Verdi’s popular work are so profound as to inspire me to write future essays on what he has shown us. Guth has invaluable insights into the relationship of Rigoletto and the daughter he has raised apart from the decadent society in which he exists.
I suspect that a whole essay can be written on the relationship between Rigoletto and Monterone, the only character in the opera who always says what he means. Both Rigoletto and Monterone have the same goal, protecting daughters from a society that would corrupt and destroy them.
It is improbable that Rigoletto and Monterone could have done anything together that Monterone, with his wealth and noble station, could not alone, but Monterone’s curse assures the destruction of the one man whose goal (the assassination of the Duke and through that act, the end of his society) might have advanced Monterone’s goal.
Guth’s staging and Verdi’s music
Many directors have found a wealth of ideas to work with in staging “Rigoletto”, but not everyone appears to love every bit of Verdi’s music in the way Guth does. Whether it is an offstage banda playing some seemingly banal tune, or a chorus some find incongruous, Guth finds a way to make it delight.
When one hears the suggestion of a formal dance, the chorus instantly shifts into formation of classical gavotte. Where Verdi has penned a jaunty passage, the chorus launches into choreographed jive walking. When the chorus seeks to tell the Duke about how they kidnapped Gilda, six dancers appear on the stairs to do a lively ballet representation of Gilda’s abduction.
[Below: the Duke of Mantua (Michael Fabiano, far left, front) watches six dancers enact an abduction scene; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Opéra National de Paris.]
Rigoletto’s double is used with continuous dramatic effectiveness. As Gilda describes to her father how she was ravished by the Duke, Rigoletto’s double brings the jester a cardboard sword for his Vendetta duet with his daughter.
[Below: Rigoletto (here, Quinn Kelsey) waves a cardboard sword as he plots vengeance while his double (Henri Bernard Guizirian) looks on, edited image, based on Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Opéra National de Paris.]
I enthusiastically recommend Claus Guth’s production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto”, both to the veteran opera goer and the person new to opera.