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Theatre & Performance Review: COC’s Rigoletto is both a musical jackpot and directorial puzzle

Roland Wood, right, and Anna Christy star in the Canadian Opera Company’s performance of Rigoletto, with Christy’s stunning solo being the standstill moment of the show.

Michael Cooper

Title
Rigoletto
Company
Canadian Opera Company
Conductor
Stephen Lord
Music
Giuseppe Verdi
Director
Christopher Alden
Stars
Roland Wood, Anna Christy, Stephen Costello
Venue
Four Seasons Centre
City
Toronto
Review Date
Saturday, January 20, 2018
Runs Until
Friday, February 23, 2018

Christopher Alden's production of Rigoletto is revived at the Canadian Opera Company for the first time since 2011, boasting a formidable cast of singers in Stephen Costello (the Duke of Mantua), Anna Christy (Gilda) and Roland Wood in the title role. If any production is worth a second glance, it is one by Alden – and it is never a chore to gaze again on Michael Levine's evocative set design.

Alden and Levine move the 16th-century action of Rigoletto and place it in a 19th-century gaming room – a room full of men, brandy, cigars and wood-carved architectural details. It's here where the Duke and his paid-for posse gather, where women are abused.

This singular space is transformed throughout the three acts; almost to the point of irritation, Alden wavers between his gaming room's being a literal environment for his characters, and its being symbolic of Rigoletto's firm place on the outside of society, looking suspiciously in. In fact, for much of the opera's most important action, Rigoletto himself is placed downstage left in a plush leather chair, dunce cap atop his unfortunate head.

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The symbolism is clear: this world is individuals against a mob. The hunchbacked jester, the diminutive and virginal daughter, even the concept of decency – these are the individuals who inevitably lose against the will of the mob, which in this story is allied with the Duke of Mantua, a man who misbehaves daily and gets away with it. Alden writes in his director's notes: "It is a nightmare about an all-powerful and irresponsible ruler."

Yet, the allusive nature of this production comes at a cost. Too often is a straightforward conversation between two characters made unclear, and too often are we left with the most basic of questions: How are these characters related? Where are they?

Alden has an exasperating habit of resisting what's natural, and in his Rigoletto, it becomes a hindrance. Impassioned conversations happen between people who are entirely disconnected onstage; in their sex-charged first-act duet, Gilda and her Gualtier Maldè never touch.

Most importantly, the audience is robbed of a meaningful understanding of the relationship between Rigoletto and his daughter. Theirs is a complicated, offensive perversion of love, where Rigoletto shelters Gilda so much that she is entirely unprepared to weed out even the most obvious of dangers when it crosses her path.

Alden avoids all the natural staging written into Verdi's score; Rigoletto-Gilda duets go by with no mind paid to the music that so obviously sees them share eye contact, even embrace. Instead, Alden tells their story in awkwardly added mid-act scenes, silent for the rumblings of thunder. The scenes aren't offensive, per se, but they certainly take a toll on Verdi's dramatic pacing – which is arguably tighter than Alden's.

Worth the price of admission is Wood's performance in the title role. His beautiful, troubled sound is extraordinary in its dramatic scope; in a fallible and human way, he wavers between a man who broods over having been dealt a bad hand, and a determined man who makes tragically misguided attempts at making right all the wrongs in his life. Wood's voice seems chameleonic, turning from menacing to loving on a dime and always with the darkness of an anti-hero. His aria in the second act rightly brought down the house.

Wood's Rigoletto is foiled by Stephen Costello as the Duke of Mantua, whose easy, cocky sound is brilliantly offensive and unfortunately beautiful. Christy is a youthful Gilda, believably naive; her stunning Caro nome is a standstill moment of the show.

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All three are led by Stephen Lord at the podium, who counted this Jan. 20 performance as his 67th conducting of Rigoletto. Lord's innate, human approach to Verdi's score lets it amble along naturally, full of fire, elasticity and space for the singers.

The COC's Rigoletto is a musical jackpot and a directorial puzzle, worth a trip to the Four Seasons Centre before Feb. 23.

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