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Some do it with an angry word

Covent Garden Plaza
09/19/2001 -  and (without relay) 22, 24, 27, 29 September, 2, 5, 8 October
Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto
Marcelo Alvarez (Duke of Mantua), Peter Auty (Borsa), Graeme Broadbent (Ceprano), Dervla Ramsay (Countess Ceprano), Paolo Gavanelli (Rigoletto), Quentin Hayes (Marullo), Giovan Battista Parodi (Monterone), Eric Halfvarson (Sparafucile), Christine Schäfer (Gilda), Elizabeth Sikora (Giovanna), Andrea Hazell (Page), Nigel Cliffe (Court usher), Graciela Araya (Maddalena)

Royal Opera orchestra and chorus

Edward Downes (conductor), David McVicar (director)

On the opening night of the 2001-2002 season at Covent Garden, the performance of Rigoletto was relayed to a screen outside on the Plaza, under the sponsorship of BP. There were seats at the front for those who couldn't stand, but basically, you stood or sat on the ground. It was quite like the Proms, with added noises off and smells -- coffee shops on one size, perfumed cosmetics on the other -- and with a thundercloud permanently overhead that mercifully didn't deliver but kept the atmosphere ominous. There was less buzz in the audience than there usually is in the house (or at the Proms). Perhaps the looped pre-performance material on the screen was so much like cable television that people vegged out, as far as they could given the slight chill of the evening and risk of rain.

The relayed performance also seemed to be what viewers will see on BBC television in the near future, bar perhaps the odd camera or vocal wobble. Even though the audience in the Plaza saw the opera as it happened, the telecast shots were already in place, predigesting our response and draining away some of the sense of danger of a live performance. The director, David McVicar, in a screened introduction referred to the single set, but there was little sense of it from the mid-shots and close-ups. Similarly, the miking had its usual homogenizing effect on the voices and their interactions.

But if the relay inevitably smoothed everything down, it still suggested a powerful production and some shattering performances. The set seemed to be two-sided, a dark but shiny front where the court boys' club caroused brutally, turned to reveal scaffolding and a fence pencilling in Rigoletto's home and the inn. Almost everything else, though, was pretty much according to Victor Hugo (and Verdi). Rigoletto was a brother of Gwynplaine, the man who laughs because a cruel king has had a smile surgically fixed on his face, and Quasimodo, all horrible on the outside in a projection of the world's cruelty and obsessively loving within.

Paolo Gavanelli had his hump, on beetle-like black armour, and also crutches, but the effect, and his performance, was a million miles away from Richard-the-Third camp, his abuse of Ceprano and Monterone in the first act visibly the result of diverted anger and disgust. Christine Schäfer was a fragile Burne-Jones angel, similar enough in dress and flowing red hair to the wenches at court for Rigoletto's moral anxiety to be understandable, but also for his complicity to be disturbing. In the last act, with cropped hair, she was visibly mad throughout. Marcelo Alvarez's Duke had enough of the emperor Nero in his character to blot out thoughts of the singer's famous amiability. Graciela Araya's earthy Maddalena was a force of nature, leaving you with a sense that the Duke might have met his match after all. Eric Halfvarson's Sparafucile was first among equals in a supporting cast of Sadean grotesques and nasties.

Schäfer's voice in particular seemed not to be flattered by the relayed sound, and it would be unfair to comment on the singing as heard from the Plaza. The broadcast will certainly be worth watching, though. And hopefully some of those who watched in the Plaza will be tempted to buy a ticket and see another performance in the flesh.

H.E. Elsom



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