By Giuseppe Verdi

Opéra de Montréal
Conductor, Tyrone Paterson
Director, François Racine

A review by M. D. Ball of the performance on October 2, 2010

(Cliquer pour lire la critique en français.)

This review contains spoilers.

In an era of paralyzing social hypersensitivity, a time when feelings supersede reason and compassion trumps truth, I applaud theatre and opera companies that produce stories showing that a historically stereotyped minority can commit the same sins as the majority who does the stereotyping. In other words, a hunchback dwarf is just as human as a non-hunchback non-dwarf.

In this opera, the Duke of Mantua is a lecherous reprobate who uses women as disposable toys. Between the Duke's courtiers and his jester, Rigoletto, there's a long-standing antagonism traceable to and nurtured by bigotry that comes from one direction and by taunting that comes from the other. At a ball one night, Rigoletto mocks Count Monterone after the latter denounces the Duke for seducing his daughter. Reacting out of righteous indignation, Monterone curses the frightened jester, who then carries the burden of this superstition to the end of the story. Hungry for revenge against Rigoletto, the courtiers abduct his daughter, Gilda, whom they mistakenly believe to be his mistress, while deceiving the jester himself into helping them carry out the kidnapping. Upon realizing what he's done to the daughter he adores, Rigoletto suddenly remembers the curse ("la maledizione") and terror fills his heart. Meanwhile, Gilda is in love with a young man she believes to be a student but who is actually the Duke himself. After taking her to the palace, the courtiers inform the Duke, who delights in her new whereabouts. The Duke deflowers Gilda, Rigoletto swears vengeance against him, and what ensues therefrom is a series of tangled machinations that culminate in a tragedy punctuated with one last heartbreaking outburst of "la maledizione!"

In the literary sense, Verdi's hunchback is classically grotesque by invoking pity and revulsion simultaneously. Leroux's phantom and Shelley's monster are two other such creatures, as are two of Hugo's hunchbacks, Quasimodo and Triboulet. The former, obviously, is the tragic hero of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but the latter is the protagonist in Hugo's play Le Roi s'amuse (The King Has Fun), on which Verdi based Rigoletto. In Roi, Hugo broke with literary tradition and established a new kind of personality that he labeled "grotesque" because it would present the extremes of human nature in a single soul. In this grotesquerie, we would see both evil and kindness, a duality that reflects the ambivalence and self-discordance of real human nature. After all, no one is all-virtuous or all-evil. Not only is Hugo's Triboulet grotesque in his simultaneous wickedness and magnanimity, but he is also categorically Romantic by being soaked in misery and wracked with physical and emotional contortions.

Like Triboulet, Verdi's Rigoletto is a misanthrope, a sadistic man who paradoxically brims with love for his daughter, on whom he showers affection generously and unconditionally. When a physical deformity is what propels a tale, i.e., what motivates the protagonist, defines the characters' relationships, and launches the evolution -- or degeneration -- of those relationships, then that deformity has to be present and we have to sense the character's resentment of the cruel prejudice he's been suffering. As in Shakespeare's Richard III, if that pique isn't palpable from the opening scene of Rigoletto, the story loses its cohesion, and the protagonist's behavior feels erratic, arbitrary, and aimless, creating needless confusion that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to invest oneself in the character.

Such was the dysfunction of Opéra de Montréal's production of this opera. Frankly, I've grown weary of their satisfaction with supermediocrity. Baritone Anthony Michaels-Moore sang the title role but failed to give Rigoletto's contradictory passions a discernible or intelligible polarity. Instead, while wearing a costume and throwing off some dramatic gestures, he delivered what was arguably a concert version of his role. Michaels damaged his character fatally by choosing to extenuate, or perhaps by forgetting about, Rigoletto's physical deformity. He didn't represent the opposite of his social context; nor was he the visual antithesis of all the people around him. Like Richard III, the jester's ugliness informs his behavior, as I explained above, and in its absence we lose what can be regarded as Aristotle's "efficient cause" of the whole mess, that which triggers the entire cascade of events that lead to tragedy. To our baritone's credit, though, I have to admit that his Rigoletto wasn't at all a timid, crippled clown. He was a powerful member of the Duke's court who used his savvy and wit to his own advantage, which included protecting his daughter. Michaels sang the role confidently, with a vivid, authoritative voice that resonated throughout the hall.

Nevertheless, the weakness was systemic. Generally, the characters did not forge relationships with each other, whether positive or negative; they missed -- or squandered -- too many opportunities to weave together the music, the drama, and the narrative into a single fabric. Rather than standing in place and singing into space, they should have sung to each other, listened to each other, reacted to each other, and played off each other (the blocking, a bit slapdash, contributed to the problem). The most conspicuous and aggravating example of this deficiency was the very climax of the story: Gilda's death in the arms of her father. The reaction of Michaels' Rigoletto was astonishingly anemic, as though his dead daughter were no more important than a stranger on the street. During and after her last breath, his singing continued as though he barely noticed, without any shift in urgency or gravity.

Sarah Coburn fashioned a sweetly naive Gilda, though her acting was superior to her singing. Her tone was delicate and her attack accurate, but her vibrato was very fast, in the style of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, reminiscent of Edith Piaf. This rapid flutter made her singing unpleasant to my ear -- but that's obviously a matter of personal taste. David Pomeroy's Duke was a sleazy playboy throughout the story, but never more so than during "La donna è mobile" ("Women are fickle"), in which the cavalier Duke almost came across as sociopathic. While making it easy to loathe his character, Pomeroy underscored the theme of princely immorality that antagonized the censors with whom Verdi and his advocates did battle.

All in all, this production was worth seeing -- once -- despite being sloppy, if for no other reason than to enjoy a few strong but uneven individual performances. Rigoletto has Shakespearean dimensions that champion the realism that keeps us honest about human nature but that prudence keeps at a manageable distance from us. If Opéra de Montréal had given due attention to the nuanced connectivity among the characters, to the chain of causation in the storyline, and to the curiously metastable coexistence of good and evil in our souls, this production might have been a triumph. I'm not sure whether mediocrity, or even supermediocrity, is better than nothing.