A Londoner at Savonlinna’s new production of Rigoletto would not have struggled to recognise the distinctive elements of David McVicar’s staging, which has been dominating the Royal Opera House for years. It’s all there: the first scene orgy with fellatio, casual copulation and sexual abuse, the jester’s unique body suit of leather, with lethal spikes in place of bells, and his crutches, and Gilda's white nightdress. McVicar’s take on the opera has in no way been moderated by its journey to Finland.

Ramë Lahaj (The Duke of Mantua) © Soila Puurtinen, Itä-Savo
Ramë Lahaj (The Duke of Mantua)
© Soila Puurtinen, Itä-Savo

The staging leaves one in two minds. The first scene in particular turns the stomach, makes you want to hate and condemn McVicar, especially in his treatment of Monterone’s daughter, wrapped in a bedsheet, grasped and groped by the courtiers. But you can’t, not entirely, because it’s such an effective piece of theatre, an insightful honing on the excess and depravity of the Duke and his court. Most effective is McVicar’s consistent deployment of Monterone’s daughter, who remains at court, a silent waif-like presence, during the Duke’s second act scenes, attempting to offer comfort or simply listening with the manner of a devoted dog beaten daily, and still casually tormented by the courtiers. The look of recognition between her and Gilda, coming from the Duke’s bedroom, is a nice touch.

The courtiers themselves are more repellent than the Duke, a crowd of howling, ravenous animals that make a powerful case for compulsory sterilisation. Tanya McCallin’s set is functional: three large criss-crossed metal frames that separate and come together in various ways, and a ducal throne during palace scenes. Not much more is needed because Olavinlinna acts so well as a set, the rear believable as palace or town. Choreography is well-handled, particularly in tutti scenes – there was always a feeling of organic flow rather than artifice to the movements.

Ramë Lahaj (The Duke of Mantua) and Tuuli Takala (Gilda) © Soila Puurtinen, Itä-Savo
Ramë Lahaj (The Duke of Mantua) and Tuuli Takala (Gilda)
© Soila Puurtinen, Itä-Savo

The centre of this production is the father-daughter relationship of Rigoletto and Gilda. Every scene between Kiril Manolov and Tuuli Takala was dramatically engaging and musically captivating. Takala had the edge as Gilda; with purity of tone, dove-white in colour, a strong higher register with lovely high notes and a splendid sense of line, she dominated the evening. Dramatically she was convincing, conveying Gilda’s virginal naivety, her sense of shame and her desperate love. Keep a watchful eye: Takala is a singer worth travelling to see.

One of the disadvantages of McVicar’s staging is that with Rigoletto stooped on a pair of crutches, it limits to a certain extent the acting scope and places more pressure on facial and vocal expression, which Manolov was largely able to meet. Manolov’s lower register has an appealing resonance to it and he was at his best in his first scene in Act II, a slight sob and the hint of the quiver in the voice. Occasionally though, he seemed to run low on energy; his contributions to the “Sì! Vendetta” duet were a little limp. Ramë Lahaj’s Duke looked the part, though his physical violence towards women will not necessarily convince those who are used to a more charisma-focused Duke. Vocally he seemed a little underpowered, struggling to make himself heard over the ensemble, but in his arias he was warm toned and solid enough at the top of the voice.

Mika Kares (Sparafucile) © Soila Puurtinen, Itä-Savo
Mika Kares (Sparafucile)
© Soila Puurtinen, Itä-Savo

As Sparafucile, Mika Kares’ lower register oozed malevolently from the very first “Signor”, well-projected and appealingly phrased; singing his sister, Katarina Giotas had a credible stage presence, but suffered slightly from poor projection.

Chorus performance was strong with lively phrasing and keen diction, boisterous and excitable. Philippe Auguin drew a strong performance from the Festival Orchestra with tempered brass and fullness of sound from the strings.

 

Dominic's press trip to Finland was sponsored by the Savonlinna Opera Festival