The Canadian Opera Company’s second offering for its 2011-2012 season is Verdi’s ever-popular Rigoletto. It comes on the heels of Robert Carsen’s stunning production of Iphigenia in Tauris. In Carsen’s brilliant conception of the opera, everything works to produce a great night of opera By contrast in Christopher Alden’s production of Rigoletto just about nothing works. At the end of the evening, you are left scratching your head wondering what the hell Alden was trying to do.

Let’s start with the positive achievement and work our way down. The production has two casts for the main roles and I saw the opening night singers. Russian soprano Ekaterina Sadovnikova gets the highest marks for her performance as Gilda, the innocent, pure, protected and loving daughter of Rigoletto. Sadovnikova has a pure, lovely and sweet voice. Her Gilda was tender, passionate, moving and endearing.

Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey took on the title role in the opera with commendable results. He has a big voice and can manipulate it quite adroitly. He was not as passionate in some of his arias but that is most likely because of constraints put on him by Alden’s conception of the opera. When he was allowed to let loose as when he begs the vile courtiers to return his daughter in Cortigiani, vil razza dannata he is dramatic and moving.

As the Duke of Mantua, tenor Dmitri Pittas had vocal problems. He has to sing several familiar arias, starting with the carefree Questa o quella stating the credo of a libertine. He is seated on a leather sofa and is restricted from any flourishes or movements to illustrate the lyrics. Blame the director for his position but the voice is Pittas’s issue. The chorus drowns him out. We get to La donna e mobile, perhaps the best known ditty in the repertoire, and expect the high B in “pensier”, the last word in the aria, to be hit and sustained. Pittas never gets there and, worse, he does not even sustain the note that he does achieve.

And now on to Director Christopher Alden and Set and Costume Designer Michael Levine. Rigoletto opens in the palace of the debauched Duke of Mantua where he displays his immorality and he and his courtiers are having a whale of a time. Levine and Alden have put them all in what looks like a finely appointed room in an English club. The walls and ceiling are covered with walnut panels, there are leather couches and the men wear tuxedos and read The Times. The stuffy atmosphere of a wood-paneled room club may be inconsistent with the dissolute court of the Duke but is an impressive and eye-catching set and credit is due for its design.

From there the opera is supposed to move to the street where Rigoletto meets the murderer-for-hire Sparafucile (Phillip Ens). Rigoletto goes home where he sees his daughter and. The final scene is supposed to take place in a dumpy hotel by the river where the Sparafucile and his sister Maddalena (Kendall Gladen) fulfill their professional responsibilities. In the hands of Alden, however, everything happens in the paneled room. Nobody moves. Even in the last scene, where only Rigoletto, Gilda, Sparafucile and Maddalena are supposed to be in it, we have the chorus in their tuxedos standing at the back humming wind noises. This is just plain dumb.

I can list a boatload of such tricks that Alden has downloaded on the production. Some are interesting. For example, in the final scene we are to see Gilda appear dressed like a man. She appears and finds the Duke’s clothes and puts them on. That is an interesting trick even though it is hard to contemplate how in the world this woman can achieve that trick if one were to follow the plot.

Alden wants interaction among the characters to be minimal. When Rigoletto begs the courtiers for the return of his daughter, he is facing the audience. The courtiers have their backs to him and in fact they are huddled around a couch on which Gilda and the Duke are … doing what? There is also a leather arm chair, stage right, on which Rigoletto slouches at the beginning and which is used several times during the performance. I have no idea what effect this is supposed to produce. Is this an attempt at Brechtian Epic Opera where we supposed to be removed from the action?
There are more tricks of this sort: whatever philosophy or vision Alden has of Rigoletto, the final product looks just plain unsatisfactory.

According to the programme, this is a new co-production with the English National Opera based on a production by the Lyric Opera of Chicago. No doubt, there are people who saw the virtues of Alden’s approach. They escaped me.