Morris: Edmonton Opera's Verdi’s Rigoletto opens at the Jubilee

Edmonton Operaís new production of Verdiís Rigoletto opened at the Jubilee on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. Photo Credit: Nanc Price Nanc Price / Edmonton

Share Adjust Comment Print

Edmonton Opera’s new production of Verdi’s Rigoletto, which opened at the Jubilee on Saturday, promised much: a dark, hard-hitting Robert Herriot production that would relate the sexual exploitation and shaming horrors of the opera to a modern #MeToo world, all in a ‘steam punk’ setting.

In the event, it turned out to be rather a tame affair that skirted around the potential power of the original.

It started out well. A hulk of a jester in the form of baritone James Westman, in multi-coloured metal foil, rises in front of the curtain. The curtain goes up, and we are in a dystopian Duke’s court. Camilla Koo’s set is a bit of a cliché – two levels of a glass-fronted building with a balcony, looking like a Bauhaus design – but here works effectively, with dancing figures seen smudged behind the glass.

Deanna Finnman’s costumes seem to come out of The Fifth Element, with hints of both 60s go-go dancers and 70s disco. The male chorus are uniformly dark, black leather with a touch of sci-fi, giving an almost homo-erotic element to their gang presence.

So far, so good, but that initial promise soon fizzles out.

Koo’s set remains essentially the same, and increasingly fails to match the action. In the last act, the visual of Sparafucile’s tavern flops completely. It surely should contrast completely with the Duke’s court, seediness rather than opulence, street-corner sex rather than courtesans. Here, with the green back-lighting, it looked like a municipal aquarium.

Only the little jetty out into the river at the end had imagination, but it was not enough. It was indicative of the inadequacies that first the presumably plastic ‘glass’ windows awkwardly reflected lights, and second that the overhearing in the opera was done in corny fashion at the very edge of the stage.

Even Finnman’s sure touch waned. Gilda’s all white virginal nightshirt made Sharleen Joynt look suitably girlish, but surely it shouldn’t look so much the same, and equally virginal, when she comes out after being seduced by the Duke. And Maddalena’s costume – like a 50s cigarette seller at a casino – felt clichéd.

Herriot’s staging also seemed to give up on the central premise of the production, playing it safe rather than challenging the audience. There was little sense of sexual tension, or indeed the kind of dramatic tension associated with, for example, a husband being forced, sadistically and intentionally, to watch his wife being molested and then taken away to be raped by the Duke. The little actual violence was terribly stagey.

Edmonton Operaís new production of Verdiís Rigoletto opened at the Jubilee on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. Photo Credit: Nanc Price Nanc Price / Edmonton

Even the love element failed to convince: in their duet, the Duke (Matthew White) and Gilda (Sharleen Joynt) seemed more interested in singing well than falling into each other’s arms, and indeed, they moved away from each at the climatic moment.

Things were not helped by what was going on in the pit. Rigoletto is a churningly vital score, full of contrasts and dramatic colours. Here the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra were generally lacklustre and unidiomatic.

Judith Yan’s conducting was unimaginative. She hurried through the work, not allowing the singers the kind of opportunity to broaden a line or shape a phrase that Italian opera so demands.

Indeed, there were far too many moments where singers and orchestra were out of step, and the overall result was that the real orchestral power of the piece – which contributes so much to the drama – was simply lost.

Of the singers, it was Joynt as Gilda who rather dominated the proceedings. Here was one of those situations where the people’s choice clashed with at least this reviewer’s views. Clearly segments of the audience thought she was wonderful.

Indeed, she has a rather dark, powerful soprano, and ability to easily soar up to the highest notes (where she rather over-delighted in little trills), both of which are striking. Against this is a vocal element that will narrow the range of roles she might take: she has a pronounced beat (or flutter), most noticeable in the main soprano range.

This will put off some listeners more than others (and this not just a matter of taste – those with perfect pitch can find such voices problematic). However, such a beat is often associated with singers later in their careers, and she did sound far too old for the character: suitable, maybe, for a number of major operatic roles, but not for Gilda.

Westman, as always, brought a thoughtful interpretation to his Rigoletto, but again I wonder if it is his ideal role vocally. He was at his best in the strong emotions of the last Act, where much of the writing is higher, and he could let the emotions go.

However, a lot of the part is written pretty low for a baritone, and here the voice loses a clear pitch – he was musically stronger in last year’s La Traviata, where the role of Germont senior is written higher.

Edmonton Operaís new production of Verdiís Rigoletto opened at the Jubilee on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. Photo Credit: Nanc Price Nanc Price / Edmonton

It was interesting to hear the young American tenor Matthew White sing the Duke. It was perhaps too early in his career to take on the role – it requires the strength and consistency, in addition to the lyrical, that he hasn’t quite got yet – and his acting was a bit weak (as was Joynt’s). But this is a voice of great promise, a pleasure to listen to, and his future is certainly one to watch.

Mention, too, of the fine performances of both Monterone and Sparafucile (complete with one very swift costume change) by bass-baritone Aaron Dimoff.

Having said all that, it is remarkable how Verdi’s score – and Piave’s masterful and dramatic libretto – managed to still shine through in what was overall a disappointing production.

But this is not the first time that the basic premise of an Edmonton Opera production has promised much more than it has delivered. The ideas are really good. The company needs to have the courage of its convictions, and stop playing it so safe.

Preview: Verdi Rigoletto

Organization: Edmonton Opera

Conductor: Judith Yan

Director: Robert Herriot

Designer: Camilla Koo

Costume designer: Deanna Finnman

Starring: Sharleen Joynt, James Westman, and Matthew White

Where: Jubilee

When: Sat Oct 19

Next performances: Tues Oct 22 (7.30 pm), and Fri Oct 25 (7.30 pm)

Tickets: $29 – $165, or 780-429-1000.