Only someone incredibly na´ve would come to the world of grand opera looking for happy endings. And yet in the entire tragic realm of the genre, few operas rise to the sad grandeur of Verdi's Il Rigoletto, a twin treatise on the futility of revenge and the inexplicable vagaries of love. This extremely handsome production, one of the most opulent released on ArtHaus Musik's recent foray into Blu-ray territory, memorializes a very well sung and played Zurich Opera version from 2006, starring Leo Nucci as the ill-starred and hunchbacked court jester Rigoletto, and Elena Mosuc as his doomed daughter, Gilda.
Il Rigoletto is a bit of an anomaly in Verdi's oeuvre. Based on a somewhat scandalous play by Victor Hugo, the opera upped the ante considerably, bringing scrutiny by the Austrian government (which at that time controlled northern Italy, where Verdi was writing) who didn't take lightly to having a theatrical presentation which depicted lecherous and lustful royalty who cut a patently sleazy swath through the kingdom's womanfolk. In fact Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave had to go to great lengths to keep their piece under wraps while it was being written in order to escape the watchful eye of government censors. When Il Rigoletto premiered in 1851, it was only after mediation provided for several changes from both the Hugo original and the first adaptation of Verdi, hopefully (in the government's eyes at least) to remove some of the "too close for comfort" stigma of the depiction of a royal court ruled by hormones.
Verdi's musical language is typically lush in this piece, though some of the orchestral interludes sound positively Germanic, almost Brahmsian, in their burnished used of diminished and minor tonalities. The entire opera posits a sort of dichotomous tonal world as the tragedy of Rigoletto's daughter's involvement with the Duke of Mantua spirals to its hopeless conclusion. On the one hand we get the glittering, highly ornamented moods of the court scenes played off against the dark and brooding interior worlds of Rigoletto. It makes for a fascinating juxtaposition, and one which this production handles admirably.
This is one of the most impressive physical productions I've seen recently, with a very nice and apt metaphorical use of lighting and color schemes which help to provide a bit of subliminal meaning to the proceedings. The opening court scene is told in vivid reds, highlighting the Duke's rampant lustiness. Other, later scenes, as revenge becomes the guiding principle, are told in a variety of cool and moody blues. There's an air of decrepitude amidst opulence to many of the sets--brickwork is slightly askew and, whether intentional or not, the interior of Gilda's bedroom looks like it could use a good paint job.
Vocally this is a very impressive Rigoletto indeed. Nucci handles the upper end of the baritone ranges of the role (actually verging into low tenor territory at times) quite handily, with some excellent use of melisma and a neatly controlled vibrato that keeps the vocal lines nicely focused. Mosuc is simply spectacular as Gilda, a soprano role that can too often become maudlin. Mosuc's incredible dynamic control is put to excellent use here, especially in such showcases as Act I's "Caro Nome," a difficult aria that Mosuc handles easily.
Conductor Nello Santi is obviously old-school, and that's exactly what's needed for a production like this. He exhibits a firm control of his orchestra and unlike some other recent opera DVDs I've reviewed where the conductors seem to be playing for the camera, Santi obviously couldn't care less he's being filmed. The orchestra plays splendidly, with some very nice balance between brass and strings especially.
Il Rigoletto is a pretty exhausting piece, for audience and player alike (in fact, by the closing bows the entire cast and Santo are drenched in sweat). It's not an easy opera to sit through, and it certainly has nothing approaching a happy ending, and yet its investigation into the meaning of human relationships, love and revenge provides an unusually insightful look at the tempestuous emotions that rule men and women of every time period and class. This Rigoletto mirrors that interior world with an altogether stunning physical production that brings the tragedy of these characters vividly to life.