German director Andreas Homoki’s operatic productions are instantly recognizable. They tend to demystify the magical, reduce complex figures to commedia dell’arte stereotypes and look like tableaux vivants of crazy cartoon characters. Recent examples include a Reality-TV show Turandot in Oslo and Dresden, a cricket club Médée in Zurich and a Lohengrin in Lederhosen in Vienna. Homoki’s colour-coded production of Rigoletto for the Hamburg State Opera, which first appeared in 1994, is no exception. It seems costume designer Wolfgang Gussmann had the German Bundesliga more in mind than 16th-century Mantua.

Alexander Roslavets (Monterone) and Chorus © Arno Declair
Alexander Roslavets (Monterone) and Chorus
© Arno Declair

The vile race of courtiers are outfitted in Borussia Dortmund yellow and black frock coats with ominous bird-beak masks; Rigoletto padre e figlia sport Schalke royal blue (colour-cordinated with their dinky little house); the Monterone’s are attired in FSV Mainz red and predictably, the Sparafucile’s are garbed in basic Bayer Leverkusen black. No prizes for knowing which team to support in this operatic match!

The dukedom of Mantua must have fallen on hard times, for instead of the sumptuous palace indicated in Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto, the single stage set was a bare, claustrophobic angular cement bunker with a single design feature of a large movable yellow crown which miraculously also functioned as bed. An incongruous ball hanging from the ceiling allowed Rigoletto to pull down a stage-wide scrim from time to time and provided a pole substitute from which Maddalena could swing seductively in Act III.

George Petean (Rigoletto) © Arno Declair
George Petean (Rigoletto)
© Arno Declair
The stage antics following “Bella figlia dell’amore” looked like a Feydeau bedroom farce with the protagonists running chaotically in, out and around the old Rigoletto residence upended as it was when Gilda was abducted. The courtiers pranced, preened, twitched and sashayed with about as much menace as a chorus line of giggling drag queens. Constant finger fluttering made them look alarming like Hans Neuenfels’ rodents in his Bayreuth production of Lohengrin.

This maladroit mis-en-scène could have been redeemed by a decent musical performance but sadly this wasn’t the case. Conductor Gregor Bühl seemed entirely focused on keeping the orchestra as unobtrusive as possible, despite almost all the singing taking place at the very edge of the proscenium. Verdi’s powerful orchestration, especially in passages such as “Cortigiani, vil razza” and “Si, vendetta” were reduced to limp oom-pah accompaniments.  Only the short string introduction to Act III showed the orchestra’s real potential.

Most of the singers failed to impress. As a young looking Conte Monterone, Alexander Roslavets lacked presence and vocal strength. Sicilian born tenor Ivan Magri looked comely enough in top-to-toe canary yellow as “Gaultier Maldè” but was dramatically bland and vocally tentative. The final top D flat in “Addio, addio” was dangerously pushed, however “La donna è mobile” was confidently and crisply delivered with a powerful ringing B natural on the final “pensier”. Regrettably, Magri omitted the da capo in the rollicking “Possente amor mi chiama” cabaletta and wisely eschewed the interpolated top D flat which only Luciano Pavarotti or Alfredo Kraus seemed to relish.

Despite a rather white soprano and injudicious use of vibrato, Hayoung Lee has all the right vocal credentials for Gilda. Unfortunately a detached demeanour made for a rather one-dimensional stage presence. “Caro nome” was evenly and accurately sung although the final E natural trill on “Maldè” had less than Sutherland-like precision. Her Italian diction was consistently poor.

George Petean (Rigoletto) and Hayoung Lee (Gilda) © Arno Declair
George Petean (Rigoletto) and Hayoung Lee (Gilda)
© Arno Declair

In the title role, Romanian baritone George Petean had the hardest job avoiding the fatuousness of the production especially in “Cortigiani, vil razza” when prancing courtiers made this highly dramatic scena almost risible. He was regrettably costumed in a white pom-pomed jumpsuit under the familial blue cape. Petean's is not a huge voice but there were moving moments, especially in the important duets with Gilda. His monologue at the start of the second scene, “Quel vecchio maledivimi” was particularly effective. “Culto, famiglia, la patria” was more plaintive than bitter. 

The best singing of the evening came from Andrea Mastroni as Sparafucile and Nadezhda Karyazina as his strumpet sister. Currently engaged for comprimario roles in Hamburg, the Russian born mezzo with a rich plummy timbre has an impressive future. “De’ scudi già dieci” was a surprising musical high-point of the performance. Milan-born Mastroni was absolutely convincing as the duplicitous assassin and his vocal abilities were no less impressive. A floaty top E flat on “Sparafucile” in his first encounter with Rigoletto was both sinister and seductive while the low F naturals in Act 1 and his “Buona notte” in Act 3 had sepulchral sonority.

At the full-time whistle, this Bundesliga Rigoletto was another case of director Andreas Homoki scoring an own goal.