Composed in 1850-51 to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto was accused even before its first performance of its “disgusting immorality” and the “obscene triviality of the plot” in a formal decree from Venice’s Department of Public Order. But by 1861, ten years after its premiere at La Fenice, the opera had already enjoyed close to 300 performances and was to go down in history as one of Verdi’s most enduring successes.

<i>Rigoletto</i> at Bregenz © Karl Forster
Rigoletto at Bregenz
© Karl Forster

The huge stage in Bregenz, which juts out over the Lake Constance opposite an audience of some 7,000 in bleachers, is a spectacular feat of engineering in its own right. But for this production of Rigoletto, a 14-meter high clown’s head centre stage can be raised, lowered and sent out on a moveable brace in all directions. The head’s eyes are able to blink, stare or show loving attention, the mouth can be opened to a set of variable teeth and – given brilliant lighting effects and with its nose removed to reveal what looks like blank bone – the head can serve as a huge and terrifying skull.

What’s more, the figure’s two gigantic hands, each some 9 meters in height, are masterful multi-taskers. They serve as shelter, draw attention to the characters, even give “the finger” when the action is sordid or misguided. And that’s only part of the spectacle: in Act 3, Rigoletto’s beloved daughter, Gilda, rises some 90 metres above the stage in a hot air balloon; the infamous philanderer, the Duke, swings in a hammock above the huge head’s brow; and the stage itself – weighing no less than 140 tons anchored on some 120 piers – can be pulled apart and disconnected, mirroring the break-up of every social convention and, ultimately, poor Rigoletto’s sanity. Indeed, it’s no surprise that under stage designer and director Philipp Stötzl and Heike Vollmer’s leads no fewer than 46 different companies took part in the set’s construction and fine-tuning.

<i>Rigoletto</i> at Bregenz © Karl Forster
Rigoletto at Bregenz
© Karl Forster

Taken together, the travelling musicians, glittery silks, balloon pants and sequinned capes of the chorus, tumbling acrobatics and buffoonery make as much a glorified circus as they do an opera. And while the festival’s sound system was improved at a cost of 2.5 million Euro this past year, the fact that the singers perform at such a distance makes it difficult, at least at first, to distinguish them. It’s for good reason that Kathi Maurer’s eye-catching costumes included emblazoning the names of the principals across their backs.

Under conductor Enrique Mazzola and audio-transmitted from the nearby festival hall, the Wiener Symphoniker orchestra gave a fine performance that included some superb soloists, the oboe and cello deserving particular mention. What’s more, the acrobatics by Wired Aerial Theatre were both mind-boggling and perfectly timed. The artists strung on wires at tremendous heights above the lake, or mastering their antics on the radically slanted stage, made a case for the true suspension of disbelief.

<i>Rigoletto</i> at Bregenz © Karl Forster
Rigoletto at Bregenz
© Karl Forster

The extraordinary Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov made a superb Rigoletto. While cast as a circus clown rather than the more familiar hunchback, he infused the role with great compassion and sobriety. Morphed into a circus director, American tenor Stephen Costello sang the Duke of Mantua with the requisite degree of self-assuredness, but lacking a degree of passion he purportedly felt for Rigoletto’s sequestered daughter, Gilda. He was assisted in his obtuse machin­ations by four apes in bell-hop attire; their antics boosted the degree of commotion, but added little, in this case, to the sense of foreboding. That said, the Duke’s “La donna è mobile” was sung with gusto.

Mélissa Petit (Gilda) and Vladimir Stoyanov (Rigoletto) © Karl Forster
Mélissa Petit (Gilda) and Vladimir Stoyanov (Rigoletto)
© Karl Forster

Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda was convincingly portrayed by French soprano Mélissa Petit: she mastered the acrobatics the unconventional staging demanded of her with terrific aplomb and her duet with her father, (“Figlia! ... Mio padre!”) and her solo from the balloon were two of the vocal highlights of the production. Her voice showed itself supple and appealing, although, through no fault of her own, the fact that she was so far away made every gesture, every nuance of her body language, all but impossible to read. As the evil Sparafucile, Hungarian bass-baritone Miklós Sebestyén gave a convincing performance, despite being somewhat visually hampered by a silly costume: his tight black leotard and tights were emblazoned with a skeleton and what looked like a bundled fishnet was strung over his shoulders.

In sum, the spectacle of this production took the cake, while Verdi’s sublime music and clever undercurrents took something of a back seat. Granted, Bregenz's Rigoletto may be a feat of unparalleled accomplishment and ingenuity in staging, but it was hardly Verdi at his visceral best. Being over the top, it took an amazed “wow,” but hardly went under the skin.

****1