Scottish Opera Reinvents Rigoletto
by Ryan Famiglietti
Rigoletto is a perfect choice for the Scottish Opera. Last year they performed the other of Verdi’s most famous middle works, La Traviata. This year, Rigoletto completes the set and hopes to replicate La Traviata’s success. To these ends, it was mostly successful—albeit with a few hiccups.
Before even hearing the opening note, we are assaulted by a glitzy cast of (all male) courtiers dressed in 1950s style evening attire – each with a differently coloured cummerbund so that, taken all together, they make a rainbow. Rigoletto, the fool, is condemned to a green, sequin-covered sports coat.
While the 50s-cocktail party vibe was fully embraced by the costume department, it seems that the Opera’s scenographers didn’t get the memo. The set is a mess of garish colour and clean lines. Gilda’s room, in act two, is replaced with an abstract scene that wouldn’t be out of place as a MoMA installation. The Duke’s chamber seems to be something between a cheap rip-off of Warhol’s Factory and Christian Grey’s bachelor pad – only replacing the respective socialites and sex toys with disemboweled mannequins and chintzy disco balls. I can’t help but feel that this was something of a missed opportunity for the Scottish Opera. Playing with the costumes and set is a way to breathe new life into old operas and to add layers of meaning that will resonate with modern audiences in a way that 150-year-old lyrics can’t. While the Scottish Opera’s set is ‘pretty‘ in the prettiest of ways, it failed to add much to a performance that – especially in the first act – verged on stale.
After a dreary first act, however, things began to pick up. The singers seemed to find their voices, characters settled into their roles, and the pit’s dynamics became slightly more interesting. The pit’s performance was particularly dismal through the first act, so I was pleasantly surprised to find them almost totally transformed after the interval. What began as a rather flat interpretation of Verdi, devoid of dynamic range and almost dragging in tempo, evolved into something rich and springy. I can’t help but wonder if conductor Rumon Gamba channeled his inner little league coach and gave the musicians some sort of rousing pep talk. Indeed, act three was nearly exceptional. The pit delivered the emotional highs and lows that the performance desperately needed, and the singers ran with it.
Gilda, especially, seemed to follow the model of ‘dreary-first-act-followed-by-excellence’. While Lina Johnson’s entire performance left much to be desired, her second two acts were markedly better than her first. But it is Gilda’s voice that is needed most. Especially in our contemporary context, it is easy to sympathise with Rigoletto, whose intricacies are conveyed not so much through his voice but rather through his circumstances. We intuitively understand his complexities; we hate his possessiveness, but can’t help but empathise with him because of his situation. Gilda, however, is more irrational to modern eyes. The Duke treats her horribly, and yet she sacrifices herself for him anyway. This is so foreign to us that we can understand it only through the power of a standout vocal performance, and I’m sad to say that, especially in her upper register, Lina Johnson did not quite deliver.
I must note that there is one caveat to the assessment above: Aris Argiris’ Rigoletto. Throughout the performance, even the first act, the Baritone was exceptional. Aris Argiris’ voice is rich, and developed; his cadence is requisitely sombre but still manages to have a whimsical bounce. Even as I write this, days later, ‘Povero Rigoletto’ is stuck in my head. Indeed, a large part of me believes that the transformation we see in the other characters stems from their absorption of Argiris’ zeal through operatic osmosis.
In the Scottish Opera’s rendition of Rigoletto, we see Rigoletto at his best while the pit and the rest of the cast follow his lead – and perhaps that’s just how Verdi wanted it.