Performances of Rigoletto aren’t exactly a rarity, but new productions are: the current Royal Opera production is over 10 years old and ENO’s previous production, by Jonathan Miller, opened in 1982 and lasted 27 years. Since Rigoletto is such a well loved opera, that makes last night’s opening of Christopher Alden’s new production for ENO (a co-production with Canadian Opera Company, who staged it in 2011) into a notable event for London opera.

Anna Christy and Quinn Kelsey © Alastair Muir
Anna Christy and Quinn Kelsey
© Alastair Muir
Musically, ENO have been on top of their game this season and last night was no exception, with an excellent trio of main singers. Quinn Kelsey was commanding in the title role, which is particularly challenging because of the amount that has to be sung at the high end of a baritone's range: Kelsey showed immense controlled power at both ends of the range, projecting sharp viciousness without ever degenerating into a shout or growl, and genuinely moving as he successively berates and pleads with the courtiers in the great Act II aria “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata”. Anna Christy sang a pretty, clear-voiced Gilda, taking risks with the cadenza to the famous “Caro nome” and winning. Barry Banks impressed as the Duke, lending a generous, warm tone while keeping his voice flexible enough to jump airily through Verdi’s sparkling vocal lines.

There was generally good diction, greatly helped by a translation by James Fenton which seemed to give primacy to ensuring that the English words fell neatly into the musical line, rather than either obsessing about fidelity to the original or seeking extremes of cleverness in wordplay.

After a shaky start – the overture has some fearfully exposed brass notes that wavered badly – the orchestra found its feet. Conductor Graeme Jenkins was diligent in keeping the levels down, resulting in excellent balance between singers and orchestra: only Peter Rose as Sparafucile got regularly drowned out. On occasion, this meant that some of the hard-hitting power in the score wasn’t exploited to maximum effect, but the vast majority of the orchestral performance was loose and sprightly, with a lot of individual instrumental clarity.

Alden’s production follows two recent trends for romantic-era operas: it dresses everyone in 19th-century dinner clothing, and it eschews any attempt to make the locations fit the story. Rather, the whole of the action is condensed into a single place – the oak-panelled lounge of a Pall Mall gentlemen’s club – and, perhaps, a single time: for much of the opera, Rigoletto is sprawled on an armchair at the front of stage right. What we were watching, it seemed to me, were the reminiscences of an old man haunted by the horrors of his past.

ENO Rigoletto 2014 Anna Christy and ENO chorus © Alastair Muir
ENO Rigoletto 2014 Anna Christy and ENO chorus
© Alastair Muir
If you aren’t already thoroughly familiar with the story, you’re going to be utterly befuddled by this, because a great deal happens on stage that has nothing to do with the action in the libretto and, conversely, much of what is supposed to be happening is not made clear: the characters’ movements are emphatically disconnected from each other and the action. If you do know the story and you want a production that tells it, you’re also going to loathe Alden’s rendering, as did our reviewer James Karas when he saw this production in Toronto.

As well as the disconnect between singers and narrative, there are a plethora of directorial conceits designed to explore some psychological undertone. For example, at Gilda’s kidnapping, the ladder is used not by the courtiers to break in but by Gilda herself to ascend heavenwards; at her death scene, it is Rigoletto who lies sprawled on the ground as his daughter walks away radiantly into the light. The loss of Gilda’s virginity is represented by the tearing up of a giant painting of what I assume is supposed to be her departed mother, who looks mysteriously similar to Giovanna, turned from maid into a malicious procuress. A second girl clad in a white shift (presumably Monterone’s daughter) alternately drags Gilda to her fate and rejects Rigoletto’s own lecherous advances. I could have listed dozens more instances of such conceits.

Michael Levine’s sets were very stylish, and the whole production certainly exuded an air of oppression and threat. But for me, this came at the expense of nuance, especially in the direction of individual acting performances. In my view, one of the greatnesses of the opera is the change in Gilda from flighty child to a woman who makes a mature decision of self-sacrifice: in this production, there was no change either in Anna Christy’s voice or in her behaviour on stage. I also prefer to see a more nuanced Rigoletto who shows both the monster he has become and the decent man he might have been: in Alden’s conceit, Kelsey came across as unequivocally vile: all his tears were those of the crocodile.

For all this, I thoroughly enjoyed the evening. If you are a fan of Rigoletto and you’re prepared to go with the directorial concept, this production is well worth going to, not least because it’s musically excellent. But I can’t honestly recommend it if you don’t already know the opera well or if you dislike allusive, conceptual opera productions.

****1