Christopher Alden’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto returned to Toronto tighter, more focused and with fewer dramatic incongruities. The opportunity to subtly revise the staging during runs at English National Opera and now at Canadian Opera Company again have produced a show that is still full of directorial conceits and ideas that won’t please everyone but which I found stimulating and challenging in the right way. Add to this that every aspect of the music-making was top notch and it made for a fine evening at the theatre.

Roland Wood (Rigoletto) © Michael Cooper
Roland Wood (Rigoletto)
© Michael Cooper

At the heart of Alden’s production is dissolution of the barrier between the public and private spheres. All the action takes place in the extremely handsome, wood-panelled “gaming room” of a Victorian gentlemen’s club, transformed as required to provide the Duke’s court, Rigoletto’s quarters and Sparafucile’s den. Even when it serves as a “private” place there are observers; gentlemen, for example, sitting around the room reading their papers. This is reinforced by the use of Giovanna, Rigoletto’s maid, throughout the opera as the Duke’s procuress. She’s not Gilda’s protector but rather Gilda is just one of many girls she will package up for the count. There’s also the use of an actor to play Monterone’s daughter from a display of madness in the opening scene to helping deliver Gilda up to Sparafucile, presumably avenging her dead father and fulfilling the curse.

<i>Rigoletto</i>, Act 1 © Michael Cooper
Rigoletto, Act 1
© Michael Cooper

The result of all this refocusing of the action is to create an emphasis on the commodification of women in a patriarchal and class riven society. Women don’t belong in this world except as use objects. We see this very clearly when Countess Ceprano formally leads in a line of “ladies” exhibiting themselves. Perhaps it also, whether Alden means to or not, starts to drive at the impossibility of genuine human relationships in such a society. Do we see here the seeds of the ideas that Verdi and his librettist Piave would explore in La traviata two years later?

Roland Wood, in the title role, gave a very beautifully sung and affecting performance. He is a natural Verdi baritone, capable of singing with ease and beauty throughout his range. His character clearly made the journey from cynic to something more decent, if still, ultimately, not really capable of genuine emotion about anybody but himself, something Alden reinforces by leaving him alone with his grief and “the curse” as the final curtain falls.

Anna Christy (Gilda) and Roland Wood (Rigoletto) © Michael Cooper
Anna Christy (Gilda) and Roland Wood (Rigoletto)
© Michael Cooper

Stephen Costello’s Duke is a swaggering monster; never sincere or capable of real human emotion. As such, he encapsulates the production concept exactly. The unpleasantness of the character contrasts with the beauty of his singing. From his opening aria, through the many appearances of “La donna e mobile”, he produced an Italianate sound with high notes that rang round the house. Anna Christy’s Gilda looks and sounds quite child like. She has a voice that sounds lighter than it is. She can project an almost girlish sound to the back of the house and the men in the ensemble numbers did not overpower her. “Caro nome” was sung with wonderful timing and was a highlight of the evening.

Among the supporting cast, Robert Pomakov once more proved an elemental presence as a booming Monterone. Russian bass Goderdzi Janelidze also impressed as Sparafucile; singing with solidity and power while exuding a quiet menace. Megan Latham, as the almost omnipresent Giovanna, was quietly effective in her ambiguous role. The many past and present members of the COC Ensemble studio in the supporting roles all provided fine cameos; a tribute to the strength of that program and the value of the COC’s investment in it.

Roland Wood (Rigoletto) and Anna Christy (Gilda) © Michael Cooper
Roland Wood (Rigoletto) and Anna Christy (Gilda)
© Michael Cooper

Stephen Lord’s conducting was top notch. His tempi were judicious but it was his control of dynamics that really impressed. At times the orchestra produced a highly dramatic sound but always in sympathetic support of the singers through a range of volume levels. I also noted some very fine playing from the woodwind section.

This is probably not an ideal production for anyone unfamiliar with Rigoletto, but for the opera-goer with some knowledge of the piece, and a willingness to explore some of its often ignored aspects, it has much to offer. This is perhaps especially true in light of current heightened awareness about sexual predation and consent.

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