Giuseppe Verdi is reported to have felt Rigoletto was his best work, and while his repertoire is extensive, it is hard to disagree with the great man. Corrupt courtiers, assassins, stormy nights, and innocence in jeopardy, all centred on a hunchbacked court jester make Rigoletto a timeless classic that still resonates today. Particularly with Glyndebourne’s modern setting and stunning staging, this is definitely a master class in opera.
Glyndebourne’s website claims it offers “No Ordinary Opera” and I would struggle to argue the opposite after last nights performance. The company’s first attempt at the adaptation of Victor Hugo’s play La Roi S’Amuse is brimming with tension, tragedy, but also comedy. The latter is particularly enhanced by the decision to stage the opera in an early twentieth-century film studio with props ranging from old-school projectors, clapper boards, and even a drivable open-top car! Characters have also evolved as the Duke is now a suave movie star, yet his womanising ways are far from behind him. The opening numbers are accompanied by the suicide of a young actress who he has fathered a child with and soon abandoned. This choice, in particular, brings Rigoletto into the modern era as it reminds one of recent revelations surrounding Hollywood and, in particular, the Me Too movement.
In this reimagining, Rigoletto’s days as a lowly court jester are also no more, and now he is a celebrated film star of Charlie Chaplin image, complemented by bowler hat and cane. Yet he remains a King Lear figure, unwittingly aiding his own demise and that of his beloved daughter, Gilda. He is an unlikeable character, happy to help seduce women for the Duke but hiding his own daughter from the male gaze, yet the audience struggles not to be taken in by his charm. With a twinkle in his eye, he embodies Chaplin with quirky walks, ladder gags and light-footed dancing around other characters (both metaphorically and physically) but also draws us to him with his guilt over the death of Gilda’s mother and Monterone’s curse. Nikoloz Lagvilava is a truly perfect fit for the role and handles the classic weavings of Verdi as if born to do so, while still bringing his, in particular, ideas to the table.
Another thing that must be commended is the staging of this production; not just the modernisation, but the physical set workings that make this a truly imaginative rendition. The high walls of the film studio fold inwards to reveal a full-sized bar at one point with the barman already hard at work washing glasses. The walls then adjust to allow for activity to happen both within and outside the venue for particular songs, yet we can always quickly return to the scene of Rigoletto’s shame at all times. The second half also features a cleverly designed elevated box which is split to be the Duke’s study (the scene of his seductions) and the balcony just outside. This box is rotated through certain moments to show Gilda’s ruination while also preventing the audience from reaching her, just as her father suffers.
There is just too much to unpick from this performance for one review, so I strongly recommend a viewing to fully appreciate the finesse of Glyndebourne’s production. Even if you are not a regular opera-goer, this is an entertaining and captivating performance with subtitles for the Italian visible above the stage to make the show accessible for all. A few seats remain for this Saturday so be quick to avoid disappointment.