Rigoletto: Puffy shorts brigade

Take three first-rate voices (Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Ramón Vargas, and Patrizia Ciofi), one of which might not be quite ideally cast (guess), add a psssshhhht, and you have Rigoletto. That last bit is the sweet song of separating Velcro on the Gilda-containing sack in the last scene. Just another rep night at the Staatsoper.

Verdi, Rigoletto. Wiener Staatsoper, 16/11/10. Production by Sandro Sequi, conducted by Michael Güttler with Ramón Vargas (Duca), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Rigoletto), Patrizia Ciofi (Gilda), Kurt Rydl (Sparafucile), Nadia Krasteva (Maddalena)

Dmitri Hvorostovsky is no more a pathetic loser than Juan Diego Flórez is. Hvorostovsky’s carelessly sprightly Rigoletto wasn’t annoyingly smug like Flórez’s Nemorino, but he was even less plausible on a theatrical level. Looking only mildly bedraggled, hunching over roughly half the time, and giving one or two rakish smiles too many, he was closer to being the drunken life of the party than an outsider from it. Rigoletto flirting with the Countess Ceprano seems a little wrong somehow, or at least it does in a production as utterly conventional as this one. I’m sure Hvorostovsky has a more convincing Rigoletto in him, but he’s not the best actor and is so naturally unsuited for the part that it would require more rehearsal than a Staatsoper rep performance gets to bring it out.

Vocally there were some weird things going on. His tone sounded much darker than I remember from the last time I heard him (around a year and a half ago, Trovatore at the Met), and I wonder if he’s doing something odd to get the volume. He was perfectly audible for the Staatsoper’s size, but the tone lacked brilliance. It’s still a deluxe voice, but I liked the moments when he lightened up a bit to a rounder, more resonant sound best. It wasn’t bad at all, but based on this outing Rigoletto is not a role that plays to his strengths.

He smartly positioned himself in one of the stage’s hot spots downstage left for “Pari siamo.” It’s always interesting to see which singers manage to gravitate towards the acoustically best locations on the stage (Flórez is also adept at this). Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to interest the lighting folks, and he was completely in the dark for the entire monologue. Better unseen than unheard, though, especially when suffering from an excess of hotttness.

Ramón Vargas was an undercharacterized but stylishly and assuredly sung Duke. His ease and comfort with the notes and the style were impressive, however I wish they had led him to a more dynamic portrayal. I think the years of heavier rep are beginning to take a toll on his voice, which has the traces of a beat and can be kind of spread and unfocused, but the sound is still pleasant. No high C, which I think was wise; the high Bs sounded excellent. (OOPS, I mean high D, not that either, even better that he skipped it.)  Experienced Maddalena Nadia Krasteva (last seen feeling up a different tenor as the Foreign Princess in Munich’s Rusalka) managed to light up her short scene, getting more life out of Vargas than he had shown in the rest of the opera.

Patrizia Ciofi as Gilda was the most unqualified vocal success of the evening, with a clear yet full sound that sounded bell-like in the coloratura. Her very top notes turned shrill, and she rushed through the “Caro nome” cadenza, singing the highest section legato. However, for the most part this was really lovely and vibrant singing. Gildas often sound generically angelic, but she was nicely distinctive. Acting-wise she did the best she could, somewhat more engaged than Vargas but nothing particularly innovative.

Smaller roles were fine. Kurt Rydl sounded ancient and wobbly as Sparafucile but he sure was loud. Janusz Monarcha as Monterone could graduate to Sparafucile should Rydl ever retire. Michael Güttler led a conventional but tight account of the score with good control over the tempos and only a few coordination hitches with the chorus and offstage bands. The orchestra sounded slightly below their usual standard, the brass particularly out to lunch.  Everyone sang their lungs out in a shapeless “Bella figlia dell’ amore,” leading to a most graceless effect.

I believe this production has received a sprucing-up since I last saw it in 2006. The new costumes are rather loud and fussy. Rigoletto’s jester’s suit looks like a tribute to the German flag via the Italian Renaissance, there are more men in tights than there should be when the men are not ballet dancers, and even Gilda’s man costume has puffy slashed sleeves. Their brightness clashes badly with the same old, faded set. It’s all by-the-numbers, though some things could be improved: why does Giovanna enter with the music obviously portraying Gilda? And that Velcro is just a crime. Shame on you, Staatsoper tech. I have been there–I believe it was around “Venite, inginocchiatevi”–and I have chosen not to do that.

Bows. I got one at the end of Act 2, the other is from the actual end:

Vargas, Ciofi, Güttler, Krasteva, Hvotostovsky, Rydl

 Scenic photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper (first one credited to Axel Zeiniger), bows photos by me.

Next: I got a ticket to hear Thielemann and the Philharmoniker’s Beethoven show on Saturday.

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  1. i didnt see this performance but doesnt hvorostovsky do exactly that what the director wants? he is surely able to follow instructions. he may play the role intentionally as he plays it, because the director told him how to do it.

  2. Hi there, by the way – long time no see!

    I was especially intrigued by the title of this post, because I had once asked a prominent Verdi baritone friend of mine how he stands to sing so many conventional Rigolettos, and does he ever get tired of wearing velvet tights and a jester hat.

    Well, he said, sometimes you've got to create your own drama.

    I guess that's one of the reasons I enjoy working in theaters in Germany, call it what you will. Any trips planned to Frankfurt??

  3. asperias: Wiener Staatsoper rep performance… director. Hahahaha. Sorry. They are rather notorious here for their minimal number of rehearsals. The direction is strictly of the traffic cop sort. Details of characterization do not come into it. Some singers deal with this better than others.

    Christine: But he barely wore a hat! YOU CAN'T COVER THAT HAIR. I think that's probably in his contract. I feel like Hvorostovsky was trying to create his own drama, but when you don't have enough time to work that out with the rest of the cast it can be pretty tough. And when your hair is that charismatic, it's hard to look downtrodden.

    I would love to get up to Frankfurt at some point this year but don't know when I would make it yet. You should come to Wien!

  4. Alternately, a tribute to the interior color scheme of the Wiener Staatsoper. But stripes always make me think flags. Also, why don't the colors on the top half match those on the bottom half? Methinks they have three or four jester suits which don't match, and he's ended up being a different size in doublet as in puffy shorts.

  5. He was great in the Royal Opera House McVicar bewbs and blud production – I love the *two* walking sticks and the MASSIVE hump of that costume. And he had to wear a wispy balding wig (naturally retaining the Ariel white hair). But yeah, his performance was pretty stellar in that I thought, both acting and singing. Just a month before this production as well – good direction is important it seems – who knew?!

    Patrizia Ciofi was in that production too and was good, but there was squall in the high notes, and an almost painful intensity in tone above the stave (I managed to wrangle my way into the stalls). There's something up with the technique (seeing her close range you see the entire voice box shaking up and down like a pneumatic drill…)