Ekaterina Sadovnikova and Quinn Kelsey play daughter and father in high-concept Rigoletto.
RIGOLETTO music by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave (Canadian Opera Company). At the Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen West). To October 22. 416-363-8231. See listing. Rating: NNN
Verdi's Rigoletto deals with rape, vengeance and the tender relationship between a father and daughter. Christopher Alden's bold Canadian Opera Company production stresses the savagery of the first two while neglecting the last, so watching it is a curiously unbalanced experience.
Alden presents the opera as a dream or psychological flashback in the mind of the eponymous acid-tongued, hunchbacked jester (Quinn Kelsey, alternating with Lester Lynch), whose sequestered daughter Gilda (Ekaterina Sadovnikova) becomes the victim of his promiscuous employer, the Duke of Mantua (Dmitri Pittas).
There's thought behind Alden's concept; notice how often Piave's libretto has Rigoletto saying the word "dream." And certainly Alden gets help from designer Michael Levine's handsome set, which resembles a wood-panelled men's club, complete with working fireplace. The seemingly civilized world of Rigoletto's workplace becomes a nightmarish setting for abductions, murders and an execution.
Alden and Levine's effective choices include drawing links between Rigoletto and the wronged Count Monterone (Robert Pomakov), whose own daughter (in a costume that echoes GIlda's) has been raped by the Duke and whose curse haunts the jester.
Good use is made, too, of the Duke's courtiers, archetypal company men hiding behind walls of newspapers or helping their boss cover up an indiscretion. In one of the production's most chilling sequences, they voice a gathering storm (an effect usually heard from offstage) to spine-tingling effect.
Another novel idea is making Gilda's maid, Giovanna (Megan Latham), a lascivious witch, in love with the Duke herself, in Rigoletto's fevered dream.
The flip side of this high-concept production, however, is lack of emotional involvement. The series of father-daughters duets that form the heart of the opera don't resonate, because we're not sure if the events are only happening in Rigoletto's mind.
It doesn't help that the physically imposing and rich-voiced Kelsey and the thin-sounding Sadovnikova lack chemistry in their scenes together. Kelsey's much better in his dramatic musical monologues, or with hired assassin Sparafucile, played with sinister gravity by Phillip Ens. And mezzo Kendall Gladen creates a full character in her brief scenes as the latter's sexy sister, Maddalena.
Pittas pulls off the Duke's famous arias with ease, only occasionally showing strain in his high notes. He's equally comfortable with the staging, which includes a quasi-masturbatory session with a pillow.
Johannes Debus conducts an unhurried reading of the score, the dark harmonies matching the sinister goings-on above.
Debus alternates with conductor Derek Bate, and the lead roles are shared by others in the alternate cast; not that that matters, since direction and design are the real stars, albeit controversial ones, in this production.