Rigoletto - Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich, 28 July 2007
(Münchner Opernfestspiele 2007)
Setting Rigoletto on the Planet of the Apes struck the first night audience a couple of years ago as a concept so ridiculous that many came armed with bananas before they'd even seen it, ready to pelt the director at the end. But it does work on some levels. Portraying the Duke and his retinue as monkeys shows how far they have yielded to their animal appetites.
More problematical is the casting of Rigoletto himself as a human lost astronaut/Charlton Heston figure. It underlines his outsider status in the society in which he finds himself, but it also implies he is more 'human' (more civilised, moral, intelligent) than the apes amongst which he finds himself, whereas the opera makes it clear he shares their values. So he becomes a more heroic figure in this production than Verdi intended. It also brings associated problems with the role of Gilda, cast as a human daughter, yet desirable to the apes - if her human status doesn't isolate her from ape society, then why should it for her father? Etc - the more one considers Dorris Dorrie's production concept, the less it stacks up.
What it does offer is many opportunities for fabulous design and choreography. The revolving sets with their crumbling buildings, the faux-Vuitton costumes of the ducal retinue, the bottom-flashing monkey chorus all form a no-expense-spared spectacle.
Fortunately the musical side wasn't as problematical. Carlos Alvarez anchored it with a splendid Rigoletto. A little too far on the youthful and sprightly side maybe - where he should have been abjectly pathetic at the abduction of his daughter, he instead looked ready to kick some monkey butt. But he was generally a lot more convincing, able to switch from humour to tenderness to tragedy. The puffy spacesuit was an unnecessary distraction though - I hope it wasn't as uncomfortable as it looked. I suspect Alvarez would be even better in a production that didn't compromise his characterisation the way this one did.
Elena Mosuc was spectacular as Gilda, cruising through the incredible technical demands of the role as if they were nothing. She can put enormous power into her sweet, bell-like voice when she needs to, and float the pianissimos too. Her Caro Nome was absolutely the highlight of the night.
I was really looking forward to seeing Joseph Calleja as the Duke, but unfortunately he pulled out a few days ago. He was replaced by Piotr Beczala, who gave a rather uneven performance, managing best with the quieter intimate moments. His first act duet with Gilda was beautifully done, but generally both his voice and his presence were on the lightweight side for this role and he was overshadowed by his colleagues.
Maurizio Muraro as Sparafucile had the assured presence that Beczala lacked. He was appropriately got up as a masked Darth Vader lookalike. His restrained menace was perfectly pitched. His sister Maddalena, mezzo Elena Maximova, bravely sported a skintight devilish red bodystocking, but she could sing too, and was suitably alluring and manipulative in the final act quartet.
If the singing wasn't 100%, the orchestral support was impeccable, especially the slowly-built suspense at the end of the first and last acts. No bananas from the audience either - they loved it, and this Rigoletto got plenty of applause, complete with about six (I lost count) curtain calls.