The Welsh National Opera’s Rigoletto is gripping, moving, and topical. The soprano Marina Monzo’ triumphs as Gilda in a production with sophisticated performances, notably that of tenor David Junghoon Kim, supported by a vibrant orchestra, and powerful chorus.
Set in Washington D.C., James Macdonald’s Rigoletto is perfect for the Trump and #MeToo era. The outside events and news make this production topical. The Duke of Mantua is here a womanizer President, decidedly more charming than Trump, but just as likely to treat women as things to take for one’s own pleasure. Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered in Venice’s La Fenice in 1851 although it was set in 16th century Mantua so that it could get the placuit of the censors.
Rigoletto reflects a male world where men own women. It is not just the Duke who imposes his will, or better, caprice, on women, but also Rigoletto, who keeps his daughter, Gilda, effectively captive in order to protect her from the Duke and any other men. Yet, Gilda, at first a young girl who never leaves home apart from going to church, becomes herself by falling in love with the Duke and by dying in his place to save his life.
By today’s standards, this is still a rather misogynistic view of womanhood and of purity. It reminds one of Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles (1891). Tess is purified by her sacrifice. Women exercise agency only by falling in love and dying for love. They live and die in function of another, the independent-minded need not apply. Carmen is a useful contrast in this case (also part of WNO’s repertoire). She affirms her independence and of course is killed for it, but at least she doesn’t die for somebody else.
Mark S Ross as Rigoletto shines in some parts more than others, but gives a solid performance overall. David Junghoon Kim shows he is very much at home with Verdi. His powerful voice delivers La donna e’ mobile with great sophistication and his acting is convincing. It is Marina Monzo’, as Gilda, who steals the show with her dexterity and purity of voice. The WNO’s chorus is impressive and the orchestra, conducted by Alexander Joel, gives out a beautiful intensity that befits by Verdi’s music.
Rigoletto represents the begging of Verdi’s mature phase. It broke free from previous rigid structures of arias separate from the action. It is still suspenseful and bold. That is why the constant interruptions from the Cardiff audience, far too keen to applaud as soon as a singer completes an aria, are completely out of place. This state of affairs, which plagues most operas, shows little appreciation of how much music relies on silence and how disrespectful it is to interrupt a scene. At Rigoletto, the audience fought the orchestra and stopped the singers, who patiently waited to continue the scene. This production was worth bearing with such irksome practice.