Wandering Glyndebourne’s foyer in the interval of its first ever production of Rigoletto, there was a common thread of conversation: what on earth was going on? Those not in earnest discussion were rifling through the programme book for clues. On the surface, it was easy to read. Shorn of any physical deformity, Rigoletto is cast here by director Christiane Lutz as the ultimate jester of silent cinema, Charlie Chaplin. We immediately recognise the bowler hat, the familiar waddle, the twirling cane and can imagine the “tears of a clown” behind the public mask. A promising concept.

Nikoloz Lagvilava (Rigoletto) © Richard Hubert Smith
Nikoloz Lagvilava (Rigoletto)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The curtain rises on a black and white film synced to a 1954 BBC interview Chaplin gave in which he was asked if he would change anything if he had his time over again. “Oh no, I don’t even want to go back,” he answers, “I just want to go keep going forward, forward, forward…” A character, presumably an elderly Rigoletto, strips to his underwear and scribbles “forward, forward, forward” in circles on the floor. Verdi’s opera conveys the story he trembles to look back on.

Nikoloz Lagvilava (Rigoletto) © Richard Hubert Smith
Nikoloz Lagvilava (Rigoletto)
© Richard Hubert Smith

We switch to a film set, where Rigoletto is starring in a new film, The Duke’s Amusement (reference to Verdi’s source material, Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse). Hollywood mogul “Duca” takes a shine to Rigoletto’s leading lady and they disappear behind a screen. If you miss the “9 months later” caption briefly chalked above the brickwork, confusion could set in, for Monterone bursts onto the set, vowing vengeance on “Duca”, who has fathered his daughter’s baby (the actress from the first scene). Whilst Monterone utters his curse, his daughter climbs the scaffolding and throws herself to her death – a splendid acrobatic slow motion leap – and Rigoletto scoops up the baby and takes her away. The opera’s second scene, which takes place later that evening as Rigoletto returns home, is here placed “17 years later” after which the action unfolds more or less as per the libretto, although it leaves the audience grappling with the idea that “Duca” is attempting to seduce his own daughter. The final scene is a mess, ending in carnage as “Old Duke” confronts “Old Rigoletto” and shoots him, an unnecessary bit of directorial clutter that detracts from the two singers playing Gilda and Rigoletto.

Farrell Cox (Aerialist) as Monterone's daughter © Richard Hubert Smith
Farrell Cox (Aerialist) as Monterone's daughter
© Richard Hubert Smith

Lutz has some neat ideas though and Benedikt Zehm's lighting casts clever shadows. The assassin Sparafucile is another Chaplin, camouflaged into the brickwork, the Duke's poor student “Gualtier Maldé” guise is a chauffeur, and Rigoletto shows Gilda film slides of her mother to explain her history. Rigoletto the clown is evident – his Chaplinesque pratfalls with a ladder preventing him from noticing Gilda’s abduction – but the jester’s vicious side never really comes across here. Rigoletto is the star, the entertainer. Why would the crew want to abduct his “lover”? No, not everything works, but with a few tweaks, this could be an outstanding show.

Nikoloz Lagvilava (Rigoletto) and Vuvu Mpofu (Gilda) © Richard Hubert Smith
Nikoloz Lagvilava (Rigoletto) and Vuvu Mpofu (Gilda)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Musically, this was a solid performance. A Riccardo Muti-like moratorium on interpolated high notes had obviously been issued, which added a level of “safety” to the singing where Verdi’s score should thrill and tingle, but the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra played well for Thomas Blunt, strings whipping up a frenzy in Rigoletto’s tortured “Cortigiani” aria. Georgian baritone Nikoloz Lagvilava has a gorgeous, warm voice, quite heavily laced with vibrato, and sang beautifully, although his acting had limited impact, never really plumbing the emotional depths of this great role. His baritone didn’t always stretch through to the end of phrases, but I like his voice very much and would be interested in hearing more from him.

Matteo Lippi (“Duca”), Vuvu Mpofu (Gilda) and Natalia Brzezinska (Giovanna) © Richard Hubert Smith
Matteo Lippi (“Duca”), Vuvu Mpofu (Gilda) and Natalia Brzezinska (Giovanna)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Vuvu Mpofu was an effective Gilda, her bright soprano crystal clear, although her coloratura was careful rather than sparkling, her trill almost non-existent – a handicap in “Caro nome”. Matteo Lippi made a fair impression as “Duca”, his well-produced tenor sounding appealing. Oleg Budaratskiy was a grave Sparafucile, Madeleine Shaw a fruity Maddalena.

This is a thought-provoking – if occasionally baffling – staging, definitely worth catching on tour. I shall be keen to see if and how Lutz develops her production when it eventually transfers to the main festival.

***11