Rigoletto, Verdi

English National Opera

21st September, 2009

An offer you can't refuse

This week, ENO remounted Jonathan Miller’s mafia production of Rigoletto. Premiered in 1982, this production replaces sixteenth century Mantua with 1950s Little Italy. Rigoletto, the court jester, is now the bartender and the Duke of Mantua is now the ‘Duke’, a mafia boss. Gilda is still Gilda, Rigoletto’s innocent daughter, and Sparafucile still kills people for a living. Mr. Miller himself was onboard for this twelfth revival.

Surely the age of the director in opera began before 1982, but it could be argued that this is one of those few productions that “made” the Director. With this in mind, one might expect that in performance, this production would make plain that this was indeed directed, and cleverly at that. Yet, surprisingly, the director is out of the way. In an age where directors sometimes avoid telling the story if it gets in the way of their idea, or destroy conventions for the sake of destroying conventions, or generally impose themselves upon masterpieces in order to be noticed, a production which may have given courage to such behaviour shows no signs of it.

Photos by: Chris Christodoulou

Verdi is a tall order, no bones about it. With the title role in Rigoletto, Verdi creates a complex character who can only express himself simply; he paints a Vermeer with a sponge. Rigoletto has a completely conflicted personality but there can be no gray areas vocally or emotionally; when expressed, his emotions must come out in bold colours, in broad strokes. Verdi’s ability to express profound ideas with sparse use of subtlety demands a corresponding visual style.

In performance, Verdi’s demands are obvious. He makes us an offer we can’t refuse, if you will. The test is simple: Close the eyes. If one cannot be equally or more enchanted with eyes open, surely something is in the way. On this evening, one wanted the eyes open.

Where this production succeeds is in its transparency. It engages audiences in a new way while the characters still make sense and the story is clearly told. Rather than getting in the way, the production enhances Verdi’s music with a visual style that gives space. The brilliance lies in the fact the audience is too engaged in the music and the story to notice its cleverness.

But it would not work without solid performers. Anthony Michaels-Moore in the title role never holds back. He gives his all. Hurling out warm yet vulnerable sounds, he is Rigoletto. Michael Fabiano, the ‘Duke’, sang ardently; a performance that grew through the evening. Kathryn Whyte, our Gilda this evening, has an obviously beautiful voice, but perhaps this role in the Coliseum is not appropriate just yet. It would be a joy to hear her sing lighter repertoire. Brindley Sheratt has everything one desires in a Sparafucile: an intense presence and cavernous low notes.

If Mr. Michaels-Moore will forgive me, the real stars of the evening, for these eyes and ears, were Maestro Lord and the ENO band. The playing was passionate yet detailed, both powerful and lithe. Standout moments include the haunting solo cello and bass in the Act I Sparafucile/Rigoletto scene paced to chilling effect. And, two words regarding the subito piano in the Act III storm scene: goose bumps.

Mr. Miller has warned, “I have not discovered a formula here. This cannot be done with any opera.” The success of this production since 1982 may have encouraged an age where the director has to be one who comes in with an idea rather than one who tries to make a piece work on stage. However, in this case, it is clear that Mr. Miller aimed first to make the piece work, and through that process, found his idea.

Bottom line: An oldie, but still a goodie.


Lewis Marceau


response to this review: response@operaticus.com

Production Credits

Conductor: Stephen Lord
Director: Jonathan Miller
Designers: Patrick Robertson & Rosemary Vercoe
Original Lighting Design: Robert Bryan
Lighting Revived by: Kevin Sleep
Choreographer: Tommy Shaw


The 'Duke': Michael Fabiano
Borsa: Peter Van Hulle
Ceprano's wife: Fiona Canfield
Rigoletto: Anthony Michaels-Moore
Marullo: Daniel Hoadley
Ceprano: James Gower
Sparafucile: Brindley Sheratt
Gilda: Katherine Whyte
Giovanna: Judith Douglas
A Secretary: Karen Foster
A Henchman: Andrew Tinkler
Maddalena: Madeleine Shaw