At first glance, marking Verdi’s bicentenary with a concert performance of Rigoletto may seem a tad unimaginative of the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s an opera you can catch most seasons elsewhere in the capital and the opportunity to explore a rare early opera has been eschewed. However, during its summer decampment to Aix-en-Provence, the LSO played pit band for Robert Carsen’s new production, set in a circus with Rigoletto as a clown, so it perhaps makes for a natural choice, even if most of the principal singers hadn’t made it back across La manche. What a bracing season opener it made under conductor Gianandrea Noseda! If it’s subtlety and nuance you want in your Verdi, best look away now, for this was fast, furious, frothy and frenetic.
On the plus side, more orchestral detail was heard than one would hear in the opera house, unless you’re seated over the pit. How wonderful to hear crisp, accurately articulated brass playing in the prelude, the LSO brass fielding a cimbasso, which always earns bonus points. Violas and lower strings deserve plaudits for dark tinta of the Rigoletto/ Sparafucile scene and Noseda drew out the wonderful cor anglais line in the “Miei signori, perdono, pietate” section of “Cortigiani”. However, Noseda set some relentlessly frenetic tempi right from the start, the off-stage banda swiftly dispatching the party music, the conductor heavily accenting the score. Rigoletto’s Act II aria, “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” was taken at a fizzing pace, as was the final “Sì, vendetta” section of the jester’s duet with Gilda. At times, it felt thrilling, like a roller-coaster ride that threatens to fly off the rails. I often complain about Verdi performances that aren’t red-blooded enough, but this was very nearly carnage. Verdi’s score has to live and breathe and there were times when Noseda nearly suffocated it, smothered like poor Desdemona.
The gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus sang lustily, English vowels much on display (‘Montero-neee’!). It was an odd decision to have the thunder effects in the Act III storm played from off-stage when the chorus providing the howling wind was very much on-stage. The LSO also boasted the heaviest door-knocker in Mantua… was the percussionist rehearsing for the mallet strikes in Mahler 6 later this season, I wonder?
Of the three principal singers, only Dimitri Platanias brought any insight into his role. I missed his Rigoletto at Covent Garden in 2012, but was impressed enough with his Paolo this summer there in Simon Boccanegra to make me wish he was singing the doge himself. His baritone is big and bold, with a rich, velvety warmth to it, enabling him to ride the orchestra in great long phrases. He uses his instrument imaginatively. Rigoletto’s great monologue “Pari siamo” featured a decent range of dynamic response and expression and he fulminated convincingly in “Cortigiani”. Big moments weren’t fudged – the cries of “Ah, la maledizione!” rang out, as did the interpolated A flat at the end of “Sì, vendetta” duet.
Italian soprano Desirée Rancatore was less overtly successful as Gilda, although she garnered tremendous audience support. Her slightly bottled, breathy lower register troubled me, although higher up, she displayed some interesting bell-like colours. In duet with Platanias, she floated pianissimos nicely, albeit with a sense of very deliberate placement about them. Indeed, I felt a degree of artificiality about her whole performance. Gilda is very much a signature role for her, yet I never felt Gilda’s vulnerable character emerge, more conscious of Rancatore’s character instead. In “Caro nome” she almost manipulated the coloratura with her hands – you could see the cogs turning. Then, instead of drifting off-stage on the final trill, she stayed stock still to milk the applause.
The Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu stepped in at late notice to sing the Duke of Mantua, a role he will sing for the Royal Opera in 2014. He sang Alfredo there a few seasons back, often at a relentless forte, and evidently little has changed since then. His is a big, brash sound, exciting at times, but there’s a sense that he’s always at full throttle; even his ‘off-stage’ reprises of “La donna è mobile” were belted out. His forceful tone also affected his intonation, “Parmi veder le lagrime” tending towards flatness at the top. In fairness to Pirgu’s interpretation, the Duke is supposed to be arrogant and carefree, in which respect he did what was asked of him.
Some of the supporting cast travelled across from Aix – a couple of the courtiers, plus the brother and sister assassin team of Sparafucile and Maddalena. Towering Hungarian bass Gábor Bretz presented a suitably saturnine rogue, but Josè Maria Lo Monaco was rather underpowered among the present company as Maddalena, despite an earnest contribution to the ‘storm trio’. I’d like to hear her in more sympathetic circumstances. The Monterone of Wojtek Smilek was effective, thundering away in front of the brass, and there was an appealing Countess Ceprano from Susana Gaspar (who also sang the page’s few lines).
The Deloitte Ignite festival currently on at the Royal Opera House under the curatorship of Stephen Fry has been addressing the Wagner vs Verdi debate this weekend. I’m not sure that this performance would have done Verdi many favours. Played (and sung) as loudly and as quickly as possible, it missed the subtlety and Shakespearean depths of characterisation etched into the score, brushed aside in a bold wash of primary colours – exciting enough in itself, but hardly representative of the Swan of Busseto at his finest.
Photographs © Fadil Berisha (Pirgu); Johan Persson/ ROH (Platanias); Ricci (Rancatore)