Opera Review: Ellen Kent's Rigoletto @ Bristol Hippodrome
by Polly Hember
Verdi’s Rigoletto is known invariably as ‘the opera they tried to ban’. Based on a Victor Hugo’s notorious play Le Roi S’Amuse, which offended both public morality and political sensibilities when it was first published in 1832. A play about the licentious ruling classes, about a dissolute Duke, his hunchback court Jester Rigoletto and the horrific curse an angered father whose daughter the Duke debauches, places on them both. First performed in Venice in 1851, Verdi adapted Hugo’s morally moribund characters and unleashed them into an opera with a cinematic, fast-paced and utterly engaging opera. Ellen Kent, the celebrated producer and director who has been the biggest supplier of opera in the UK for 26 years, presents Rigoletto in all its opulence, its tragedy and its dark abandon.
Kent’s Rigoletto starts off as it means to go on: in a heightened and busy state of sensory overload. A huge set fitted with columns, thrones, plush curtains, flowers and lit candles house a raucous court of laughing nobles and half-naked courtesans, all drinking, kissing and laughing invariably. To the right, a magnificent golden eagle flaps it’s beautiful wings. To the left, two elegant greyhounds watch the extravagance of the Mantuan Ducal Court. Centre stage, the Duke entertains three topless and doting courtesans and shuffling about behind him, his court Jester Rigoletto. Rigoletto was described by Hugo as having ‘a back high enough to carry a basket’, and offers an ironic commentary on the Duke’s grotesque flirting and proclamation of a pleasure-driven subversion of a cognito ergo sum. Brilliant set design and costume present the opulence and extravagance that the production then goes onto carefully critique.
Kent’s inclusion of the naked women on stage is provocative. It becomes uncomfortable and anxious as Duke and Rigoletto seduce one woman, tearing away a shawl to leave her completely exposed on-stage, surrounded by a semi-circle of cheering men, she desperately tries to cover herself and grabs back the shawl. This conveys a bleak and oppressive reality of exploitation of women, and exposes the licentious culture that the ruling classes held in the 1800’s.
Kent’s traditional production of Rigoletto is a fantastic, contemporary choice as well as a captivating political and historical commentary.
It is important to note that although it is two men (the Duke and Rigoletto) that suffer “The Curse”, it is the women around them who suffer (poor Gilda!). Watching this in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, the court’s attitude towards rape, coercion and abuse resonates critically with our current day politics as well as offering a critique on the corruption of the Mantuan Ducal Court. Thus, Kent’s traditional production of Rigoletto is a fantastic, contemporary choice as well as a captivating political and historical commentary.
The singing itself was tremendous. Brilliant tenors, soaring sopranos and flawless vocals by the entire ensemble filled the Bristol Hippodrome without the help of microphones. Special mentions to both Alyona Kistenyova (Gilda) and Giogio Meladze (The Duke), whose vocal performance (especially during their duets) felt unbounded and effortless, yet perfectly honed. Their live orchestra performed beautifully, conducted by Vasyl Vasylenko, and was met with a standing ovation at the end.
Kistenyova was a phenomenal Gilda, portraying the naïve innocence of a young woman in love as well as the dejected heartbreak when she realises she’s been betrayed by the Duke. Iurie Gisca presented conflicted and anxious Rigoletto, particularly heart-breaking when he reflects on his profession as a comic, who is not allowed to cry, who must always have a smile in place and a joke at hand to make people laugh, even when his daughter Gilda is stolen by the Duke’s men and he is alone, bereft with worry.
Kent has directed a beautiful, extravagant spectacle that is unafraid to delve into the darkness of Rigoletto’s tragedy. A complete success, that weaves beauty and tragedy in equal measures to create a lavish tapestry of corruption and hubris.