As well as fully staging each year three rare or forgotten works at the National Opera House, Wexford Festival Opera also has a series called “ShortWorks”, matinee shows held at the Clayton Whites Hotel that include either rare one act operas or shortened versions of standard length, mainstream operas. Even in a festival like Wexford’s, you cannot resist the attraction of a beloved opera that you know by heart. These shows have generally only piano accompaniment. Surtitles are provided, but don’t sit at the far sides of the room or you won’t be able to see them!

Charles Rice © Athole Still
Charles Rice
© Athole Still

Rigoletto was one of the three short works this year. A common denominator of the Festival is the use of high calibre international singers and creatives, no matter the scale of the show (the main operas and the short works often share the same singers), and Rigoletto was no exception, with an impressive concentration of young and very promising talents.

The staging was sparse, with a heavy green velvet curtain in the background. Costumes were equally simple, but they also served a metaphorical purpose: all of the characters (including the women) wore a modern black suit, except Gilda, who wore a white nightgown. As director Roberto Recchia explains in his programme note, “everyone, except Gilda, has a dark soul. No one is good; [...] not even Rigoletto”. All of the characters, again except Gilda, wore long-nosed Venetian masks. While in the scene of Gilda’s kidnapping the courtiers, according to the libretto, actually wear a mask, here its use is extended to most of the show, a clear reference to everyone’s duplicity. The lighting design was appropriately dark, with strong flashes of light during the stormy night scene.

The plot of the opera, especially its ending, are unfathomably tragic, and its moral reading is not that clear-cut. A first interpretation could point at the religious belief that justice does not belong to this world (the Duke never pays for his actions). But is Rigoletto the victim, or the executioner? He is infinitely loving and caring towards his own daughter, Gilda, but cynical and careless towards everybody else. Maybe the meaning of this story is that true love and kindness cannot be selective, but must be universal; or more, a bit like in Alfano’s Risurrezione seen the night before, no good can ever come from a bad action, and a wrongdoing always has an unpredictable ripple effect.

Musically, it surely takes a bit of filling in the dots to listen to a Verdi opera without the orchestra, and occasionally you felt a bit of horror vacui; but for the majority of time you completely forgot about it, thanks to the beauty of the voices on stage. Pianist Giorgio D'Alonzo did well, perhaps being more expressive in the brisk passages than in the quieter ones.

Giuliana Gianfaldoni was the perfect Gilda, the innocence of her character matched by her purity of tone and by her very delicate acting. No strain was shown in any point of her vocal range and she was at ease with the coloratura. She delivered an impressive and seamless crescendo in the aria “Caro nome”.

The role of Rigoletto was superbly taken by baritone Charles Rice. Aidan Coburn was a good Duke of Mantua, managing the challenging high pitch of the famous “La donna è mobile” very well, although showing some unevenness of tone at points, as well as some Italian pronunciation issues. Thomas Hopkinson as Monterone and Toni Nežić as Sparafucile had two solid bass voices. Maddalena was played by excellent mezzo-soprano Veta Pilipenko. With the paucity of contraltos for this role, her voice was the next best thing (and in fact sounding much like a contralto), with a dark and sensuous low register highly suited to the devilish sister of Sparafucile, flirting with the Duke (great phrasing of the coquettish “Il vostro gioco so apprezzar”/”I can appreciate your game”).

This production ultimately reminds us of the centrality of the voice over staging and costumes in opera: a great voice will make you forget everything else.

****1