If director Luc Bondy has a muse, it’s the Georgian baritone George Gagnidze, blessed with a bulging eyes and a big, craggy voice. After growling and sneering his way through Scarpia in Bondy’s much-maligned Metropolitan Opera production of “Tosca,” Gagnidze is back to do the same to the title role of “Rigoletto” in Bondy’s new production at the Wiener Festwochen. While Gagnidze’s Scarpia was seen as shockingly grimy, his equally scuzzy Rigoletto is rather conventional. Similarly, this visually stark production does little to shock or disturb. The charismatic Gagnidze’s vengeful jester, in fact, provides it with most of its life. (New Yorkers take note: this production will also be seen at the Met in the future.)

© Ruth Walz
© Ruth Walz

Appropriately for this bleak opera, the stage pictures are overwhelmingly dark. While the costumes suggest a nineteenth-century period, the setting is left vague. Erich Wonder’s set for the first two acts is a simple raked black stage with a few sliding diagonal walls that can form new rooms, enabling instantaneous set changes (the first two acts are played without an intermission). Moidele Bickel’s costumes involve tuxedos, glittery uniforms, and top hats for the men and extravagant dresses for the frolicking ladies of the Duke’s court. Rigoletto is without a hump, but the long tails of his bright purple suit, pink shirt, and frizzy hair mark him as an outsider at this stylish party. The Duke, first lounging on a leather sofa and admiring himself in a mirror, seems more a narcissistic, popular host than a power figure. Later, Bondy brings up the auditorium lights during Rigoletto’s “Pari siamo” monologue, implicating the opera’s audience in the court’s decadence. What our crime is is unclear; it is a Brechtian salvo without bite.

In Act 2, Gilda appears as a forcibly sheltered girl in a bare room, wearing a modest blouse and long skirt that make her look almost Amish. Her relationship with her father is not as as unequivocally happy as usual, though it is odd that she barely protests when carried off by the courtiers on her own bed. Unfortunately this is typical of the production: scattered interesting points are lost among long stretches of static blocking, formulaic conventionality, and some bits that simply make no sense.

As the courtiers abduct his daughter, the blindfolded Rigoletto obediently holds up a ladder, seemingly directed less by the demands of the courtiers than those of the libretto. The conspirators have already sneaked into Gilda’s room through a crack in the set. The ladder sticks up in the air, going nowhere, and no one climbs up it, but he stands with it anyway. As a dramatic action it has no purpose. Why did the courtiers bother to bring a ladder, anyway? One can’t help but wonder if this is a taunt to those who protested so strenuously when Bondy eliminated Tosca’s candles.

Act 3 is the production’s strongest, with some inventive character direction. In a two-level set, assassin Sparafucile’s pad is over a sleazy bar. Gilda is less a woman fallen than transformed. Wearing a festive red dress, she is now just one of the court ladies seeking the Duke’s attention. But his affection has shifted to the Carmen-like Maddalena. In the quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore,” Gilda walks right up to the Duke, but he still does not see her. After she is killed in his place, in a nice touch, Rigoletto shakes hands with Sparafucile and is unknowingly smeared with his own daughter’s blood, complicit in her death. In the awkwardly staged final scene, Gilda spends most of her dying moments unconvincingly standing up.

Young conductor Omer Meir Wellber, a protege of Daniel Barenboim, led the score with more lyricism than drama. While it sometimes sounded lightweight, the orchestral textures were beautifully clear, and the ORF RSO Wien played well. Stage-pit coordination was sometimes lacking, and the chorus in which the courtiers abduct Gilda fell apart almost completely. However, Wellbur was an excellent partner to the soloists, and balanced the ensembles carefully. Gagnidze’s powerful performance remained the highlight of the evening. Like his demonic characterization, his dark baritone was more muscle than tenderness. But while lacking in vocal beauty, his paternal affection was touching, and all the more tragic because it was so misguided to Gilda’s actual needs.

Francesco Demuro played the Duke as a conventional playboy, maturing into real affection for Gilda. Vocally he got off to a rough start and sounded stretched through the first two arias (and took an ill-advised high D at the end of “Possente amor mi chiama”), but by “La donna è mobile” showed a decent lyric tenor with Italiante flair and bright tone. Though the production seemed to want to do something more unusual with Gilda, Chen Reiss acted the role in a similarly conventional way as an innocent young girl. Her soft, round soprano was occasionally pushed at higher pitches and volumes, but showed tasteful musicianship and precision. Ieva Prudnikovaite made a memorable cameo as Maddalena, with a promisingly rich voice; as her brother Sparafucile Gábor Bretz sounded underpowered. When not losing the orchestra, the Arnold Schoenberg Chorus sounded excellent.

The production’s generic direction ornamented by a few original touches seem tailor-made for the changing casts and many revivals of a repertoire house like the Met. Usually premieres are special because of the collaborative spirit of a team that has created a production together, but this performance already relied less on its total effect that the combined strengths of its cast. Even with a first-class Rigoletto it was more routine than overpowering.