Rigoletto, one of the three operas in Verdi’s so-called “popular trilogy” (together with La traviata and Il trovatore) tells a story inspired by Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse, where the daughter of a court jester is seduced and abandoned by a powerful ruler (the King of France in Hugo, the Duke of Mantua for censorship reasons in Verdi) and ends up offering her life to save her beloved.

Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto) and Chorus
© Hans Jörg Michel (2014)

In Tatjana Gürbaca’s vision, the story is stripped of any reference to time or place. There is no palace, no house for Rigoletto, no tavern near the river: the only thing on stage is an enormous, long table, surrounded by chairs, against a black backdrop. Events seem to run into each other, with no clear chronological or spatial or logical order. For example, the scene at the beginning of Act 4, with Rigoletto and Gilda near Sparafucile’s tavern, is shown seamlessly after “Sì vendetta”, even if the text – and Gilda's mood – clearly show a month has passed. The characters were always around or on top of the same table, even when they’re not supposed to see each other, or even to be in the same room. Rigoletto is also no hunchback, or have any other feature to “other” him and make him an outcast. This made the plot all but impossible to follow for anybody not very familiar with it, and it created distance, a sort of detachment from the events that we (didn’t) see unfolding on stage. 

More distance was created by an unfortunate incident: Liparit Avetisyan, singing the Duke of Mantua, suffered a leg injury, and could not act. The solution found by the Opernhaus was to have him sing from the side, while an actress, in male disguise, acted his role on stage. She seemed often out of place, not knowing what to do with herself, but it was hard to tell if it was a lack of Personenregie, or just the awkwardness of the situation. I oftentimes found myself thinking if it wouldn’t have been better to have him acting on stage in a wheelchair (the spectacular performance of Joyce DiDonato on a wheelchair in Il barbiere di Siviglia at the Royal Opera House came to mind).

Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto) and Saimir Pirgu (Duke of Mantua)
© Hans Jörg Michel (2014)

The duke’s court was depicted as a place of depravity, the cruel courtiers enjoying each other’s humiliations, ready to jump like vultures on anybody who showed weakness. The women who ventured into this man-cave were harassed and mercilessly humiliated. This was perhaps one of the most successful ideas of the production, which overall, was hard to comprehend.

The Opernhaus male chorus did a great job both musically, with precision and nuance, and in their acting; they often had exaggerated movements, all exemplifying their debauchery, but each had his own different twist to it.

Conductor Leonardo Sini seemed to lack some spark, and at times favoured slow tempi, indulging in rallentandos which helped neither the singers nor the general feeling. The cast was solid, if perhaps not particularly Verdian. Quinn Kelsey, in the title role, sang with a strong baritone, capable of varied dynamics. He showed some difficulty in the passaggio, and his Italian “A” vowel tended to spread too much, at times in an inelegant way. His legato was overall good, but in places like “Piangi fanciulla” or “Non morir, mio tesoro, pietade”, one would want more. 

Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto) and Aleksandra Kurzak (Gilda)
© Hans Jörg Michel (2014)

Sandra Hamaoui, from the ensemble of the Opernhaus Zürich, is debuting Gilda in this revival. Her high soprano was very well suited to the part, and her girlish physique enlivened the bratty teenager which Gürbaca imagines Rigoletto’s daughter. We saw her eating bread and Nutella, accepting a pink tutu-like skirt as a present from the duke with giggles, and happily greeting the courtiers who came to kidnap her, delighted by their attention and their admiration. Her vocal performance was a little uneven, with some high notes in the mid-high range taken a bit from below, unlike the very high register, which seemed more solid. She gave a very good rendition of “Caro nome”.

Liparit Avetisyan was heroic in his limping on the side of the stage, but the obvious pain he was in didn’t hinder his performance. His tenor was youthful and enthusiastic, with bold high notes, a bit on the boisterous side, which doesn’t hurt, in this role. In the other “minor” roles, I want to mention Nadezhda Karyazina as Maddalena, whose deep, strong mezzo really made an impression, and provided a proper foundation for the wonderful Act 4 quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore”.