Monday 14th October – Proper Charlie? The director's quandary - how much to change?

To Glyndebourne for a new production of Rigoletto, the first of three operas in this Autumn’s Glyndebourne Tour. MAE was accompanied by his old chum Pious Bob. We dined in Glyndebourne’s own Middle and Over Wallop Restaurant – it certainly wasn’t the weather for late-season picnicking. As usual, an imaginative menu well served in a limited time. Game Terrine with Damson Jelly, grilled Sole, Chocolate and Blood Orange Ganache for the Pious One. Gin and blackberry cured sea trout, corn-fed chicken with lentils, Parkin pudding with date puree for your man. All as tasty as it sounds. (****)

First things first. What an excellent cast! Matteo Lippi as the Duke of Mantua is a singer with a growing reputation – already this year he has sung Pinkerton in Florence and Alfredo Germont at La Fenice in Venice. His rich vibrant tenor and warm personality made it quite believable that Gilda would wish to die in his place. Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda was played by South African soprano Vuvu Mpofu. She has a convincing voice right across the range including some very beautiful high notes. Rigoletto was in the safe hands (vocal chords?) of Georgian Baritone Nikoloz Lagvilava. He has a fine voice well suited to the role but sadly he was the singer most affected by the acting demands of this production (see below)

[Spoiler alert] The production was directed by Christiane Lutz, a German opera director with a growing reputation. I saw her talk (and direct cover singers) in a Rigoletto study day held at Glyndebourne on Sunday 6th October. She has an engaging personality and talked very interestingly about the opera. As a result I arrived for the performance with high hopes. On the study day she didn’t want to give too much away but it was hinted that there was something of a Charlie Chaplin theme. Therein lies the problem. Lutz sets the opera in the Hollywood of the 1920s. It opens in a film studio where the head of the studios (a.k.a., in operatic terms, the Duke of Mantua) is hosting a launch for a film starring Chaplin (or Rigoletto, in full tramp outfit with bowler and cane). During the event a young woman (Farrell Cox) carrying a baby approaches the Duke and is shepherded away, the implication being that the Duke is the baby’s father. Having been so dismissed she lays the baby down and climbs stairs to a high point from where (in slow motion) she leaps to her death. Rigoletto picks up the baby and carries it off. We jump forward 17 years (according to a projection on to the scenery). Rigoletto is talking to Gilda, his daughter (or adopted daughter according to this production) stressing that she must not go out when he is away. After Rigoletto leaves the Duke arrives, having exchanged glances with her in church, hoping to meet Gilda, having swapped clothes with his chauffeur and they go for a drive. Remember though, that in this production the Duke is 17 years older than when we first see him, making it perhaps less likely that Gilda will have fallen for him as the young man in church. And Gilda is now his daughter. Given that, when the Duke’s followers later kidnap Gilda and give her to the Duke, we can assume intercourse takes place (whether consensual or not*) this makes the Duke not just a philanderer but also guilty of incest. Perhaps Lutz intended this, perhaps not?

I mentioned earlier that Nikoloz Lagvilava seemed to struggle with the acting demands of this production. It is perhaps not politically correct in the 21st Century to portray Rigoletto as deformed and a hunchback (that is a debate for another time), but to instead to make him out to be Charlie Chaplin (a much loved figure the world over who we see in a film clip at the start of each half) presents further difficulties. Rigoletto is hated by the Duke’s courtiers which is why they kidnap Gilda who they think is his mistress. Rigoletto and the Duke have a curse placed on them by Monterone (whose daughter the Duke has seduced) near the start of the opera when Rigoletto takes the Duke’s side with malicious comments. To me this fails to ring true when Rigoletto is in the persona of the world’s favourite tramp, Charlie Chaplin. And then at the very end, after Gilda has died in her father’s arms still in the bar where she has been stabbed, the Duke, who is unaccountably still present, is killed by Sparafucile. He is the assassin that Rigoletto had earlier paid to kill him but he was talked out of it by his sister Maddalena. This killing, while I suppose it completes Monterone’s curse, is not in Piave’s libretto nor in Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse, the original source for the opera. It completely changes the opera’s intent. It is no longer about the rich and powerful man getting away with it while the poor suffer and die. In the study day and in an interview in the Glyndebourne Tour programme Lutz discussed Rigoletto in terms of Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo and perhaps in the light of this she wants the Duke to get his just desserts. Many in the audience might feel that too but this makes Rigoletto a different opera with a very different message. Glyndebourne directors have form in this regard. In Mariame Clement’s much revived (and otherwise excellent) 2011 production of Don Pasquale, Norina, in love with Ernesto, goes off with Pasquale’s old friend Doctor Malatesta at the end. Why? There is no hint of this in the libretto.

In case you get the idea that MAE is a dyed in the wool traditionalist, complaining at every modern setting, I would disagree. (I would, wouldn’t I). But I do feel that such directorial changes need to keep within the essential spirit of the original and not confuse and disrupt the intentions of composer and librettist. So, still an enjoyable and thought provoking evening with fine singers but, due to what I perceive as serious flaws in the production, only ***.

*Much discussion on this at the study day.

One more performance at Glyndebourne on 2nd November. The tour then continues to Canterbury, Milton Keynes, Liverpool, Woking and Norwich. (See the Glyndebourne website for details).


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