Rigoletto - ENO

Both the lady and her lover attest far too much in Christopher Alden’s saucy take on Rigoletto. With more fluffy sentimentality than a Clinton Cards store on Valentine’s Day, Gilda (Anna Christy) and her mysterious, masquerading Duke (Barry Banks) writhe around, declaring undying love from the midst of a torrent of rose petals. Kissed with brash, overblown romantic gestures, this production bears a taunting, blood-red stain of cynicism. And so, in an opera that clutches deception and promiscuity close to its wicked heart, declarations that “my love will never turn away from you” have as much emotional resonance as a Moonpig greetings card hastily detonated on February 15th.

But the genders were never going to get along. We learn this early on, when heavily-clothed ladies weave a bolshy parade through a gentlemen’s club, bisecting the weighty, wood-panelled set that embraces this production from beginning to end. As the tragedy mounts and the Duke warns us that “women are changeable, so unpredictable” (‘La donna è mobile’), Gilda’s faked masculinity is her ruin. As the Duke scoffs his way through this canzone, peeling back the thin curtain that masks Gilda’s downfall, his knowing black humour and the devilish irony in his wordplay reveal as much as his actions.

Separated from this division between troublesome men and their knowing, sacrificing women, one couple stands proud and equal. Sparafucile, the assassin hired by our eponymous hero to murder the fickle Duke, and Maddalena, his black widow of an accomplice, are presented with an incestuous bite. The pair work well respectively, but their sexual charge seems frivolous and unnecessary in a narrative that so casually misunderstands Gilda’s relationship with her father.

But while the thrust of her tabooed relationship adds little to this opera, Justina Gringyte’s Maddalena is a joy to watch on stage. Dressed by designer Michael Levine in jewels, a corset, lacy white undershorts and structural hoop skirt, she cuts a glamorous figure of perversion. Simultaneously tempting the Duke into exposing his infidelity, and preparing him for Sparafucile’s assault, she engineers the completion of his crime and the start of what could be his punishment in one fair sweep.

Sometimes the details of this tragedy are a little murky – Count Monterone’s initial curse is rather flabby, the parallels between him and Rigoletto are barely explored, the spirit of revenge is not as sharp as perhaps it could be, and Gilda’s self-sacrifice is foggy at times. However, viewers diligently focused on the courageous proclamations of central characters could easily miss the buxom, alternative displays of romance carried out by chorus members. Producing the sights of an orgy and the sounds of a storm, Alden’s chorus pulls attention away from the central scandal. As Duane Schuler’s fantastic lighting design teases the balance between the interiors and exteriors of mind, space and clique, this production stores a multiplicity of its thrills in the shadows.

Rigoletto is playing at the London Coliseum until 14 March. For more information and tickets, see the English National Opera website.

Photo (c) Alastair Muir.