Once again the Welsh National Opera has gathered together a cast of tremendous voices to showcase in their production of Giuseppe Verdi’s ever popular Rigoletto. The quality of the singing was the most memorable feature of this otherwise unremarkable production.

Mark S Doss (Rigoletto) © Richard Hubert Smith
Mark S Doss (Rigoletto)
© Richard Hubert Smith

In the eponymous role was as rich a bass-baritone as I have heard anywhere, emanating from the powerful diaphragm of Mark S Doss. He has the ability to project even his whispers, and at full pelt can make your seat vibrate with his mighty voice. However, while his interpretation of the hunchbacked jester and cursed father was wonderful to hear, his acting was a little over-demonstrative, and I didn’t find myself especially moved. Indeed, the transmission of affect was almost entirely achieved by Gilda, played by Haegee Lee. Here, we were treated to a wonderfully mature performance from a sweet and perfectly tempered soprano voice that enchanted. Lee has tremendous control and clarity in her voice which perfectly suited the church-going coming-of-age character, with all her tragic vulnerability. Lee’s acting and stage presence were equally strong, and I enjoyed her performance immensely.

If Gilda carries the majority of the emotion in Rigoletto, then the playboy Duke of Mantua has the majority of the great tunes. Like Haegee Lee, David Junghoon Kim originates from South Korea, and between them they gave an impressive representation of what Korea is producing in terms of high-quality performers. Kim had the tunes that everyone knows, but he did not fail to meet the expectations of the audience in delivering the classic melodies such as “La donna e mobile”. He has power, muscular tone and clear expression in his delivery. He also has stage confidence and a swagger that endorsed the cocksure nature of the Duke, while also possessing the tenderness to deceive us into believing that he was capable of really loving Gilda.

David Junghoon Kim (Duke of Mantua) © Richard Hubert Smith
David Junghoon Kim (Duke of Mantua)
© Richard Hubert Smith

In support of these main roles was a strong and well-coordinated chorus, and two singers of note; James Platt as Sparafucile and Emma Carrington as Maddalena. The bass notes of Platt were almighty, weighty and vibrant. Carrington gave a charismatic performance and her vocal blended in superbly well with the famous quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore”, the highlight of the performance. All these musical highlights were mounted atop a solid and flawless orchestral performance by the WNO Orchestra, conducted by Alexander Joel.

While thoroughly enjoying the wonderful music and singing, I felt rather more ambiguous about the production as a whole. There have been countless settings of Rigoletto. Indeed, one of its appeals as an opera is the variety of settings it can fit. But, this revival of James Macdonald's staging, set in the 1960s, felt like a really strange fit. The Duke’s palace was represented as the White House, replete with Oval Office and US flags. Colossal power and wealth were contrasted with a tenement slum, presumably in downtown Washington D.C., where the chaste poor and dangerous classes mingled. While the contrast was clear, the choice of referencing the United States and its presidency was an odd one, and I was confused by the parallels or meaning implied by it. The symbols, values and imagery of the White House in the 1960s just did not register with the idea of an aristocratic occupant acting above the law, sneaking around slums unrecognised, seducing, kidnapping and raping people.

Mark S Doss (Rigoletto) © Richard Hubert Smith
Mark S Doss (Rigoletto)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Nonetheless, the concept did allow for Robert Innes Hopkins' ingenious set, using the dark wood panels of the White House interior to create not just an Oval Office, but a posh party lounge and balcony as well as the slum. Unfortunately, the set change in the first act did not go smoothly, and some sort of unexplained technical hitch left the audience with an unexpected and awkward five minutes between scenes. This did not spoil the show by any means, but it did temporarily disturb the spell that the cast had worked so hard to create in the opening scene. This was a real shame in an otherwise technically impressive evening, especially from Simon Mills' lighting team which created great atmosphere throughout and whipped up a cracking storm in Act 3.

***11