Dating from 2008, the Semperoper’s current production of Rigoletto is quite intriguing. It’s set in what appears to be a swanky 21st-century Berlin apartment – industrial, sparse and effortlessly cool – and in many ways this is an interesting choice. Berlin life is notoriously debaucherous, and this matches well to the Duke’s court in the opera, where sin and vice are not just condoned, but encouraged. There’s also something about the bleak simplicity of the set, which makes it seem almost timeless, emphasising the eternal nature of the emotions played out on stage. Though dying for a man you’ve known for less than a day isn’t something you’d expect from a girl in 2013, the young, unquestioning love of Gilda, the insatiable lust of the Duke, and Rigoletto’s desire for revenge don’t have a sell-by date.

© Matthias Creutziger
© Matthias Creutziger

In spite of this, the first scene was a disappointment. During the overture Rigoletto comes up from a hole in the stage in a suit, changing into his jester’s costume, helping to emphasis his difficult dual nature: Rigoletto is no fool, he’s just clever enough to act like one. However, the scene which follows – in which we see the madness that is the Duke’s court – is unbelievably tame. The chorus wear animal masks (realistic ones, not masquerade ball style) and rather than creating a visual spectacle of sinful jollity they seem to do little more than stand around and occasionally come slightly closer to each other than would be appropriate in polite 19th-century company. Thus, when Monterone enters and complains of the Duke’s orgies, the meaning is all but completely lost.

Giorgio Berrugi is an impressive Duke. He has a very big and even voice, but it’s what he does with it which is most interesting. He finds details in the music which are so often overlooked and really makes the most of this somewhat one-dimensional character. The famous aria “La donna è mobile” is wonderfully sung, with just the right amount of rubato and it never begins to cloy or sound routine as such well known arias can. As Rigoletto, Markus Marquardt is also stunning to listen to, and really delved into Rigoletto’s conflicted character. The Scene II monolgue, where Rigoletto lays his heart bare, was stunningly sung and acted and was one of the evening’s high points.

Olesya Golovneva’s Gilda was light and sprightly, contrasting well with the richness of the male leads. Her voice shone throughout, but was always bathed in emotion. You felt her love, you felt her die; it was all there in the colours of her voice. However, perhaps the most impressive thing about the cast was that no one really stood out as a star; they were all equally impressive, and not just the principals. Scott Conner was a wonderfully dark and sinister Sparafucile, and Matthias Henneberg’s Monterone was full of a fearful vengeance which brought the fate and dark magic into the theatre, and all of them had voices to match Berrugi, Golovneva, and Marquardt. It’s rare to see a cast so even, where even the smallest solo is wonderfully sung.

This was a very enjoyable Rigoletto in many ways, with singing of the highest calibre. Added to the ever wonderful playing of the Staatskapelle Dresden, this made for a musically satisfying evening. However, I found the production in many ways too tame. In spite of the relocation of time and place, it seemed somewhat conservative. The Duke’s court is a place of sexual depravity, where the Duke’s promiscuity with other men’s wives and his raping of Gilda goes unpunished, an environment which is somewhat lacking in this production.