Newspaper article International New York Times

'Rigoletto,' Uprooted and Retold ; English National Opera Downplays Plot Points in Reimagining Tragedy

Newspaper article International New York Times

'Rigoletto,' Uprooted and Retold ; English National Opera Downplays Plot Points in Reimagining Tragedy

Article excerpt

Christopher Alden's new production is set in a salon of a gentlemen's club, circa 1880, somewhere off Pall Mall.

For more than a quarter-century the English National Opera ran, and kept on running, one of the most celebrated stagings in modern theater history: a Verdi "Rigoletto" by the director Jonathan Miller that shifted the story of curses, corruption and revenge from the mean streets of 16th-century Mantua to those of 1950s New York gangland. First seen in 1982, it was the classic instance of an opera-update actually loved by opera audiences.

And though every revival promised to be the last, it never was -- until now, when the show has been superseded by a new production with a different take.

Once more the era has shifted: this time to Victorian England where the leisured classes hide depravity (of which there's plenty in this piece) behind a veil of breeding and sophistication. And it's significant that the director is Christopher Alden who, along with his twin brother David (also a director), has built a career out of radical, revisionist interpretations that strip opera of its pleasure-packaging in search of something nasty underneath.

His last work for the E.N.O., where all operas are performed in English, was a "Fledermaus" so distracted by Viennese neurosis, and so bereft of the laughs you expect from a reliable piece of comic froth, that it felt penitential. The one before was a Britten "Midsummer Night's Dream" that overlaid the composer's troubled sexual history on Shakespeare's fairy narrative. Lesson: you don't attend a show by either of the Alden twins expecting too much fun.

But where the hallmarks of a David Alden staging have been empty sets lit by a single hanging light bulb -- shabby, derelict -- his brother's manner is less strident and less focused on raw, brutal gestures.

Christopher Alden's new "Rigoletto" has in fact a sumptuous design: We're in the salon of a gentlemen's club, circa 1880, somewhere off Pall Mall, with oil lamps, potted palms and a brigade of gentlemen sitting around in armchairs.

It's a viable solution for an opera with a large male chorus who spend half the time loitering aimlessly with nothing much to do. And it perhaps pays passing homage to the solutions Mr. Miller found for this challenge in the past.

But the virtue of Mr. Miller's "Rigoletto" was that, for all its relocation and rethinking, the hierarchic gangland setting was a perfect fit that told the story purposefully and clearly: a Renaissance Duke translates quite easily into a Mafioso godfather (the "Dook" as he becomes). In Mr. Alden's Pall Mall club we're not sure who these people are and why the Duke has power over them all.

Worse still, he tells the story in a stylized, allusive way that makes no sense unless you know the plot already -- as I can vouch, having come to the show with someone who had never seen a "Rigoletto" before and was baffled. …

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