By Judy Gelman Myers
In 1832, French authorities shut down Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi S’amuse—a portrait of absolute power gone dissolutely amok, set in the court of Francis I—the day after it opened. Composer Giuseppe Verdi, however, was so taken with the work that he used it as the basis for a libretto. Venetian authorities were so outraged by the libretto, however, that Verdi had to make numerous changes before his opera could open in Italy. Thus Rigoletto was born, amid licentiousness and abuse of power.
Neither of those qualities was lost 150 years later, when director David McVicar mounted his 2001 production of Rigoletto, revived and broadcast live around the world from the Royal Opera House in London on April 17 by Opera in Cinema. McVicar’s Rigoletto opens with an orgy of bare breasts, devolving into full-frontal nudity and nonconsensual copulation, delineating in the flesh the depraved nature of the duke’s court wherein Rigoletto’s tragedy unfolds.
Vittorio Grigolo, viewed by many as the next Pavarotti, wowed as the perfidious but charming duke. As the accursed Rigoletto, Dimitri Platanias lacked the vocal subtlety to woo one (at least a little) to his side, but something intangible engendered sympathy to his cause. Ekaterina Siurina played Gilda with an Audrey Hepburn-like innocence, ascending to her room with her face bathed in light, blissfully singing the false name of the man who will spell her ruin.
Verdi materialized the terrifying immensity of Rigoletto’s tragedy in his score. But tragedy is thrilling as well, and under the masterful baton of Sir John Eliot Gardiner that thrill resonated deep within the music’s intricate interplay between voice and orchestra. Sir Gardiner achieved such perfect equity of sound that there were moments when it was impossible—in fact unnecessary—to distinguish between human voice and man-made instrument, adding a triumphant edge of thrill to Rigoletto’s heartbreak.
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