Verdi - Rigoletto

Státní Opera, Prague, Thursday April 5 2012

Conductor: František Drs. Production : Karel Jernek. Sets: Z. Kolář. Costumes: O. Filipi. Rigoletto: Martin Bárta. The Duke of Mantua: Rafael Alvarez. Gilda: Marina Vyskvorkina. Sparafucile: Ladislav Mlejnek. Maddalena: Andrea Kalivodová. Giovanna: Sylva Čmugrová. Monterone: František Zahradníček. Marullo: Jiří Brückler. Borsa: Lubomír Havlák. Orchestra and Chorus of the Prague State Opera.

When I found I had an evening free in Prague I hopped on to the Internet hoping there’d be some Janáček at the Národní (after three days there, I’m still in the mood for accents) but the only opera available that night was Rigoletto at the Státní. Oh well, I thought, at least the orchestra and voices will be good. In the event, it was a problematic evening; and to avoid upsetting my Czech friends, I decided I’d say there was probably a ‘flu pandemic in the house.

It didn’t affect the secondary parts. Maddalena, looking very much like Gina Lollobrigida, had phenomenal presence and a winning smile and hammed it up with her hands on her hips like Carmen having a night off chez Sparafucile. Sparafucile himself was alright, Marullo was young, quite charismatic and vocally sound. But…

Martin Bárta started out coughing discreetly when the acting allowed it, but definitely improved as the evening went on and he warmed to his part. In the end, he was a credible enough Rigoletto, vocally and dramatically, though under the old-style operatic make-up (think Chaliapin) he looked no older than his daughter. Or perhaps I should put that the other way round, as it was really the Russian soprano Marina Vyskvorkina who made a rather mature Gilda, looking remarkably, but unfortunately not sounding, like Beverly Sills in her heyday. She was in trouble from the outset. “Steadiness of emission, perfect intonation, beauty of timbre. Steadiness of emission, perfect intonation, beauty of timbre. Nothing else matters. Nothing else matters. Nothing else matters,” says a soprano some of you will know, based in Madrid. Our Gilda unfortunately had none of those. Her voice was uneven in emission and timbre across the range and often out of tune – flat, mostly. Overall, the sound reminded me of those nearly-operatic-but-not quite voices you sometimes get in pre-war Hollywood films. By the end, the high notes were getting harder and harder to slide up to and any others harder and harder to hear; and during the curtain calls she looked out of puff and upset with her own performance.

Monterone looked fantastic but brayed like a wounded stag. But I guess his isn’t an absolutely key role. Rafael Alvarez, whose role, on the other hand, is undeniably key, decided to save his voice by marking early on, something the excellent acoustics allowed him to do (in any case, I was on the third row). Even so, it was congested at the top, and marking or no marking, he was vocally exhausted by the time of his much-loved sexist rant about fickle women, and completely messed up the top note he decided, to my surprise, to attempt at the end.

None of this was noticed by the audience (or, apparently, by Alvarez, who carried on looking pleased as Punch behind his rouged cheeks). There were very few Czechs in evidence but lots of tourists, photographing each other between acts against the house’s run-down neo-rococo décor (the ceiling, for example, looked as if scabs of grubby, gilded white had peeled back erratically to reveal the paintings underneath). One disgruntled-looking German on the row in front, no doubt a more regular opera-goer, tried to boo the tenor, but with everyone else seemingly so happy, he didn’t try hard.

The production was traditional, with traditional gestures, though by no means catastrophically so. A kind of gilded baldacchino, decorated with masks of comedy and tragedy and festooned with golden, tasselled ropes and red velvet, hung over the proceedings all evening. Underneath, the set revolved to alternate the court, some grim walls with railings, Rigoletto’s interior, or palisades for Sparafucile’s waterside hangout. It would have been fine, even the costumes, if only the designer hadn’t decided that the renaissance breeches should all be cut off square, rather than gathered in under the knee. As a result, our portly Mexican Duke was in pastel brocade shorts with matching waistcoat, reminding me, I’m not sure why but irresistibly nonetheless, of Bart Simpson (so just think of Bart Simpson singing “La donna è mobile”) rather than the Apollo Gilda quite mistakenly compared him with, and his courtiers wore an odd and unfortunately amusing assortment of brocade and velvet hot-pants and Bermudas over their tights.

Not up to the standards I expected from a city as magnificent and with such a magnificent musical tradition as Prague. But I believe a debate is going on there about whether or not it’s wise to keep at least three prestigious houses open offering opera. And at the price (50 euros for the top seats, 4 euros for a glass of wine and a couple of open sandwiches in the buffet), it seems unkind to complain. So, a ‘flu pandemic it must have been...

(Later) I just realised I wrote nothing about the orchestra or conducting. They were so humdrum as to go unnoticed, I'm afraid, apart from some striking oboe playing.

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