- The Canadian Opera Company
- At the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on Thursday
Show of hands, please: How many think that women in the 19th century were deprived of social, political and economic rights? Even without seeing all the hands, I'm pretty sure the ayes have it by a wide margin.
Christopher Alden, however, believes that more education is needed. On Thursday night, with the help of the Canadian Opera Company, the American director staged a two-and-a-half hour pageant of Victorian misogyny, otherwise known as Verdi's Rigoletto.
No doubt, women fare badly in this opera: They are lied to, confined to their rooms, seduced and dishonoured by a charming sociopath (the Duke of Mantua). Alden, known here for a keenly provocative staging of The Flying Dutchman, intensified Rigoletto's toxic milieu by setting the opera in the handsome lounge of a men's club (designed by Michael Levine, and lit accordingly by Duane Schuler). Alden took extra care to remind us at all times that almost everyone we encountered was a bad person. Very bad!
The Duke (sung by tenor Dmitri Pittas) got the worst of this, of course. The staging doggedly undercut his shows of sincerity – people actually laughed during his beautiful aria to Gilda, Rigoletto's pure-hearted daughter (soprano Ekaterina Sadovnikova). Never mind that the Duke's music employs the same rhetoric of sincerity as Gilda's – surely one of the most subversive and disturbing aspects of Verdi's score. A tenor with an easier sound in his upper register might have prevailed anyway, but Pittas's bright, tense singing, inclined to drift sharp under stress, couldn't quite produce the trump.
Rigoletto (baritone Quinn Kelsey) also took his lumps, both in what he was made to do and what he wasn't allowed to do. He didn't actually encounter the assassin Sparafucile (bass Phillip Ens) in Act I, or confront the courtiers in his great and furious aria in Act II, or gloat over the supposed body of his enemy at the end of the opera. For all these episodes, the duke's jester was confined to the front of the stage, singing to the house, sometimes sprawled in an armchair.
The pity is that Kelsey could be a Rigoletto for the ages. His richly modulated voice, musical intelligence and dramatic physicality are exactly what the role demands. He gave a stupendous performance within the dire limits imposed, but we could have had even more.
After a somewhat shaky start, Sadovnikova blossomed into her role as the woman who gives all for love. She made a meal out of Caro nome, somehow convincing conductor Johannes Debus to slacken the taut pace of his otherwise vigorous and transparent reading of the score. It was a beautiful meal, nonetheless, followed by a real coup de theatre as the courtiers entered to abduct her. They didn't actually carry her off, of course – Alden isn't into that kind of obvious stagecraft. He was, however, game for a hanging during the caballeta at the end of Act II – Count Monterone (bass Robert Pomakov) was actually strung up during the final phrases.
Pomakov made a good and robust showing in his curse scene, Ens gave the assassin great presence if not always accurate pitch, and mezzo-soprano Kendall Gladen brought real depth and style to the role of Maddalena, in spite of Alden's inane hints of incestuous doings with her brother. Smaller parts were capably handled by tenor John Kriter (Borsa), soprano Mireille Asselin (Countess Ceprano), baritone Adrian Kramer (Marullo), bass Alain Coulombe (Count Ceprano), mezzo-soprano Megan Latham (Giovanna), soprano Jacqueline Woodley (a Page), bass-baritone Neil Craighead (an Usher), and actor Sarah Williamson, who tore around the stage during the first scene as a deranged former victim of the Duke's charms. The men of the COC chorus handled their dynamic role very well, though they were often abused dramatically.
This show, based on a 2000 production for Chicago Lyric Opera, got sillier as it went on, though the minimal final scene between Rigoletto and his daughter was satisfying in every way. If Alden had begun his imaginative encounter with the opera in that scene and worked backward, instead of directing from a soapbox, this might have been a better show.
The COC's production of Rigoletto continues through Oct. 22.