Parlando: The COC Blog


No Exit: Rigoletto's Abuse of Power


[Tonight is the opening night of Rigoletto! Here's an excerpt from an article in Prelude by Gianmarco Segato detailing director Christopher Alden and designer Michael Levine's vision for Verdi's masterpiece.]

The world we enter in Verdi’s Rigoletto is a nasty one: a male-dominated society in which women are merely pawns used to boost the abusive and absolute power of the ruling Duke. Christopher Alden, who directed the COC’s highly acclaimed production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, will bring an appropriately dark and probing vision to his new production of Verdi’s masterpiece this fall. “Often people are dulled to what the true intent of a piece is by decades of seeing it done in a comfortable way,” Alden says. “I try to get at something which does get back to the original kick that the piece had when it was first performed.”

There is good reason to believe that Verdi would have been onside with Alden’s approach. He was highly enthusiastic about the source for his Rigoletto, Victor Hugo’s incendiary 1832 drama Le roi s’amuse, which he called the “greatest subject and perhaps the greatest drama of all modern times.” Verdi would have been attracted to Hugo’s belief that art could incite revolution and correct social inequalities, but in choosing such a subject, he faced major hurdles in attempting to turn the play into an opera. The play’s intermingling of politics and sex and its savage attack on the monarchy and the decadent aristocracy created a scandal at its Paris premiere, setting off a riot and causing it to close after only one performance.

. . .

Canadian designer Michael Levine, who provided the critically-acclaimed visuals for the COC productions of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with Symphony of Psalms, worked with Alden to restore to Rigoletto some of the elements that made it so controversial at the time of its premiere. They are setting the opera in Verdi’s own time: a hard-bitten Victorian world dominated by men, those highly-successful mavens of the Industrial Revolution for whom wealth and power were the ultimate goal and whose less-than-savoury public lives were strictly separate from the domestic realm. The setting is an opulent Victorian men’s club, all polished mahogany and thick oriental carpets: the trappings of an exclusive, privileged, closed, male society. The club will function as a kind of “no exit” court into which women are dropped and trapped as playthings for its members. Costumes (also by Levine) will be traditionally Victorian with full-skirted frock coats and formal evening attire for the men; décolleté, flounced gowns for the loose-moraled Maddalena and more appropriately restrained high-necked dresses for Rigoletto’s saintly daughter, Gilda.


Within this harsh environment, the character of Rigoletto is very much the middle-class working man whose job it is to be cruel and mocking. He is always there behind the Duke, encouraging his master to exert his power by seizing what is not rightfully his – that is – his own courtiers’ women. The Victorian separation of work and home is made manifestly clear in Rigoletto’s situation: the one ray of light in his life is his precious daughter Gilda whom he shields from the horrors of the Duke’s debauched realm by literally holding her prisoner in her own home. She is the quintessential Victorian “Angel in the House” – a paragon of womanhood who must be sheltered from the corruption of the outside world. However, as Alden makes clear, Rigoletto will learn a hard lesson in the impossibility of maintaining such a strictly compartmentalized life. Gilda eventually finds a way to break out of her oppressive home environment, with devastating consequences for herself and her father.

Read the full article in Prelude, now available online.

Top photo: A scene from Rigoletto. Michael Cooper © 2011.

Middle photo: Dimitri Pittas as the Duke of Mantua. Michael Cooper © 2011.

Bottom photo: Simone Osborne as Gilda. Chris Hutcheson  © 2011.

Posted by Gianmarco Segato / in 2011/2012 / comments (3) / permalink

Tim Vining (9/29/2011 10:43:00 PM)
Looks like another silly production. Why do you insist on silencing the voices of Verdi and Hugo? I am not against all Regie productions, just the silly ones.
Definitely the Opera (10/1/2011 2:15:00 PM)
Oh indeed. In my last seance with Verdi, he clearly indicated -- via a medium, of course -- that he feels his voice is being silenced by this Alden dude.
Don Behr (10/3/2011 6:58:00 PM)
I experienced the opera at the Sunday matinee on Oct.2. The music was wonderful. The COC certainly assembled an outstanding cast. The set was also stunning, but only for acts 1 and 3. Setting Rigoletto's residence and Sparafucile's inn within the men's club just didn't work for me. It called for too many stage actions that just didn't make sense for the story or music. Even when the setting in the men's club was appropriate, some stage actions were more distracting than helpful. Did we really need the young woman making a fool of herself in the men's club in act 1? The hanging of Monterone in the men's club at the climax of act 3 was unnecessary, unlikely to have happened inside a Victorian men's club and distracted from the main focus and musical climax - Rigoletto's and Gilda's "venegence" duet. Ruined one of my favorite Verdi father/daughter duets.

Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001



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