Audiences who went to see Rigoletto at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna on November 13th, 2016, were in for a rare treat. During Act III, the audience broke out in cheer, praising Vladimir Stoyanov and Irina Lungu, who played Rigoletto and Gilda respectfully, for their duet. Surprisingly, they responded with an encore and performed their duet again. Though an encore in an opera would generally ruin the momentum of the story, this was not the case here. This is because the true highlight of the opera was its singers who gracefully and seemingly effortlessly sang Verdi’s libretto. I was particularly interested to see how the Duke (Celso Abelo) would execute “la donna e’ mobile,” and indeed he made it seem easy. Irinia Lungu had a powerful and mature voice playing Gilda. One could almost hear her voice begging for a moment of coloratura, which unfortunately Verdi does not make much room for in his opera. The real let down of the show, however, was in the direction. The director, Alessio Pizzech, decided to set Verdi’s Rigoletto in what seemed to be a brothel with doll-like women or perhaps a cheap hotel room. Pizzech makes a clear point to show how the Duke objectifies women by presenting them as existing on stage solely for the pleasure of him and his courtiers. Their costumes seemed cheap compared to the courtiers, and coupled with their doll-like make-up they seem other-worldly, as if they emerged out of a Tim Burton illustration. Even Gilda (Irina Lungu) is depicted as a doll, which can be seen as a straightforward interpretation that shows her as a daughter unwilling, or perhaps refrained, from growing up. It was an interesting choice to have her enter the cabinet and pose as one of her own dolls while she is being kidnapped, however this makes it seem as though she willing accepts being taken away by the men. According to this direction, the event does not seem traumatic, as Gilda expresses it to be in Act II.
The background, which seemed stunning at first in the opening scene, quickly became a disappointment. Aside from presence of a plain tacky red curtain, the main problem with the set was that there was no real sense of place. At times, the backdrop was even partially raised to reveal the red curtain behind it, which seemed utterly unnecessary and contributed to a lack of context to the scenes. Of particular disappointment, was the scene where Rigoletto meets Sparafucile for the first time. Dramatically, the choice to have Rigoletto change from his heels to his suit was clever, and contributes to a clear understanding of his duel identity; of how his daughter has no idea of who he is and what he does. However, when he adorns his suit and then proceeds to meet Sparafucile, this sense of a private moment is disturbed. Is he changing in private, or is he doing so in public? There is no context as to where he meets Sparafucile with the background being completely black. Michael Mayer’s production of Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera, which premiered in 2013, sets Verdi’s opera in Las Vegas in the 1960s. Rigoletto (Željko Lučić) meets Sparafucile (Stefan Kocan) at a bar, which is actually believable and is the ideal context for a contemporary setting. However, in the production at Bologna, Pizzech relies on the audience’s familiarity with the libretto. It seems as though he relied on the libretto to move the opera forward rather than attempting to fully contextualize the opera with his vision.
While I love to see operas that are reimagined in more contemporary settings, I believe changing the setting is unnecessary if it does not contribute to the plot in any way. At the heart of Verdi’s Rigoletto is a story of a father’s love for his daughter. Unfortunately in Pizzech’s version, poor choreography of the characters that partake in the orgy and the inability to define the settings of the scenes inhibits a full appreciation for Rigoletto. Characters lose a sense of purpose in the performance. If Pizzech was trying to play to a heightened sense of sexuality contrasted with innocence, he should have pushed it further. Of the main characters, perhaps the weakest was Maddalena (Rossana Rinaldi). It is almost as if the set, being a simple yet stunningly designed ship, overshadows her character. She could have pushed her sexuality and sense of trying to seduce the Duke even further. What more, she seemed vocally weak in the quartet because of how powerful and clear Gilda’s voice is.
The principal singers, especially Vladimir Stoyanov whom the audience adored, should be praised as they vocally did justice to Verdi’s piece. It is also worth noting the conductor, Renato Palumbo who justly orchestrated the music. Of particular excitement was the way the orchestra handled the storm, which was brilliantly executed. Rigoletto is a story that can be adapted to many contexts, however in this case, Pizzech’s direction falls short.