Capitalising on their success with Verdi’s opera Rigoletto during the Aix-en-Provence Festival in the summer, the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Gianandrea Noseda chose to open the 2013/14 season last night with the same work. It was a bold move – with no set, no make-up and no costumes as distractions, the focus would be on the music, the quality of singing and a very limited amount of acting. Imperfections that might have escaped notice in a full dramatic production could have been magnified to make or break the evening. As it turned out, the practice the orchestra had had in the summer stood them in good stead, and it was a thrilling introduction to the season.
Rigoletto is a character opera audiences love to hate. Based on Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse, it is a tragedy not in the sense that the fate of the characters is inevitable, but that the reckless designs of seductive deceit among the aristocracy wreak havoc with the lives of their helpless victims. Some of the social commentary came so close to home, or perhaps so offended the prudish sensibilities of 19th-century audiences, that Verdi had unpleasant brushes with the Austrian censors in Venice.
Hunchbacks have been potent material for development by dramatists such as Shakespeare and Hugo – somehow physical deformity denotes a faulty character. Conflicted by loyalty to his daughter and to his court master, and betrayal by his compatriots, Rigoletto evokes sympathy for his tormented upbringing and being a target of taunts for his physical deformity. A scheming and deceitful blackguard he certainly can be; he does what he does, not for personal ambition, but rather out of misguided loyalty to a morally frail master given to licentious excesses.
Greek baritone Dimitri Platanias, with his dour features, was an unfathomable and heavyweight Rigoletto with plenty of pent-up anger and agony. Menacing as he vented spleen on the privileged class in “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” (“Accursed race of courtiers”), he came up a little short on tenderness in the duet with daughter Gilda in “Figlia! Mio padre!” (“Daughter! My father!”). Masterful phrasing and an underlying layer of tautness made for effective delivery of this complex role.
Tenor Saimir Pirgu as the Duke of Mantua was quite affable, but perhaps did not reek enough of casual wantonness in exploiting vulnerable women to be hateful. Every inch as suave and sweet-talking as you would expect from the Duke, he has a satiny tone that helped him sail through “Questa o quella” (“This woman or that”) almost unnoticed, but when it came to “La donna è mobile” (“Woman is fickle”), perhaps the best-known aria from the opera, the fray at the edges in the highest register belied a tinge of thinness in the voice.
Soprano Desirée Rancatore, in the role of Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda, was too sophisticated for a home-bound and innocent young woman. A lurking darkness in her tone blighted her credibility. Nevertheless, she stole the evening with my favourite part of the opera – “Caro nome” (“Dearest name”), in which Gilda savours the amorous advances made by the Duke. Scaling the heights of the human voice with numerous twists and turns, it must be the bane of many a coloratura soprano. Yet Ms Rancatore pulled it off beautifully with all the tricks of the trade, to well-deserved rapturous applause. Then there is “Tutte le feste al tempio” (“On all the blessed days”), in which she put all her lyrical prowess on display.
Gábor Bretz as the contract killer Sparafucile captured well the blasé attitude towards the value of human life, but he passed up some subtle opportunities to emphasise the gloomy side of his character, as in his encounter with Rigoletto in the first act.
Gianandrea Noseda must be one of the most dynamic and energetic conductors I have seen in recent times. Variously lunging at the orchestra on tip-toe and crouching with sweeping arm movements, he elicited an uncanny flexibility that laid bare all the mood changes in Verdi’s wiry score. The flute in “Caro nome” and the oboe in “Tutte le feste al tempio” were highlights of the evening.
2013 happens to be the bicentenary of both Verdi and Wagner, two composers standing in very different artistic positions in the opera genre. In fact, as I was making my way to the Barbican Centre yesterday, Stephen Fry was chairing a debate on the theme “Verdi vs Wagner” at the Royal Opera House. We know which side of the debate the LSO is on, and judging by their performance of Rigoletto they could well be right.