“Wriggle a Toe”

That’s what my dad used to call it: Wriggle a Toe, one of Verdi’s finest. He wasn’t that mad about opera, being more of a Brahms symphonies sort of man, but he did take me to see it at ENO. I was about 11 and it went clean over my head. I couldn’t understand why there were so many cheery oompahs in the music when on stage the characters were making like the sky was falling in. (And this was before the era of Regietheater.)

There’s something to be said for being a “grown up”. This weekend I’ve been hooked, lined and sunk by the magnificence of Rigoletto live from Mantua. Each act was set, with painstaking attention, in a spot as close as possible to the actual location in the story and performed at the right time of day or night, broadcast live to a sizeable sector of the planet.

It’s ironic that this magnificent project emerged from an Italy beset by swingeing culture cuts – according to the Parterre Box opera blog, Zubin Mehta (who was conducting) has had quite a go at the Italian culture minister, who recently chopped more millions from Florence’s Maggio Musicale festival; and all the employees of the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa are, it would seem, being made redundant. More here. According to PB, Mehta praised RAI for not cancelling this Rigoletto. And then they had the thing presented for Italian TV by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano himself. (Shall we encourage the Beeb to book David Cameron to introduce the Last Night of the Proms?)

Back to opera tourism…The Gonzagas’ Palazzo Ducale is among the most astonishing places in Italy that I’ve visited – I made an odd little Monteverdian pilgrimage there some years ago, for Monteverdi was its court composer and L’Orfeo first saw the light of day within those walls, a work that can lay claim to being the first real opera-as-we-know-it. Mantua is laden with atmosphere: darkly broodingly beautiful in that severe Italian Renaissance manner, and surrounded by lakes and marshes that contribute to the humid oppressiveness of the air. The city – still underrated as a destination compared to Venice or Verona – couldn’t hope for a better plug than this broadcast. Director of photography was Vittorio Storaro (who filmed Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now and The Last Emperor, among others). Think it looked marvellous? It did.

Above all, though, Placido Domingo was singing Rigoletto for the first time. OK, it’s a baritone role, he remains a tenor, but the timbre is not an issue: he comes across as, firstly, a great actor. It’s almost as if the singing is an offshoot of that ability. If all opera singers could act so well, I think the opera world might be a different sort of place. Grande Placido became Rigoletto to a degree that pulled you out of yourself and made you become Rigoletto too. Apparently he was afraid he might cry during Act III, but even if he managed not to, a lot of us did that for him.

The big tenor shenanigans were the provenance of Vittorio Grigolo as the Duke – again seriously impressive, with a high, devil-may-care voice that was perfect for the role. I suspect this film will make him a big star henceforth. Gilda, Julia Novikova who won the award for best female voice in Domingo’s Operalia competition last year, was gorgeously vulnerable and convincing (if I was directing, I’d have insisted she put her hair under a cap for the murder scene because there’s no way Sparafucile – a cameo role for the great Ruggero Raimondi – would have killed a girl who looked like that, but there we go). And you can see why the Duke’s head could have been turned by Nino Surguladze‘s full-throated Maddalena, who seemed about to transform into Carmen at any moment.

As for the concept, it was ambitious, stunning and carried off with incredible panache. The logistics involved are almost unimaginable – the orchestra, conducted by Mehta, was in a theatre nearby; piping them in was probably the easy bit. Producer Andrea Alderman virtually admitted that the live broadcast idea was calculated to attract as much attention for the project as possible – in which case, it worked. Its transmission to 148 countries, and the fact that millions of viewers were busy setting alarm clocks for the next act, does prove the reach that great opera is capable of when given half a chance. If there were one or two rough edges – a little odd intonation here and there or the sound of Mehta saying “Bravi!” to his musicians at the end of Act 2, that served – like the deliberate flaw in a Persian carpet – to remind us that it was human and real.

The whole thing is now available to UK viewers on BBC iPlayer, but those elsewhere can catch up chez Intermezzo, who’s uploaded the whole of act I in chunkettes. Or read OperaChic’s live blog of the event. 

A final word on the music. Is there a finer ensemble in opera than Rigoletto‘s Quartet? Were I teaching a class in opera appreciation, I’d start there. You want to know what opera can do that nothing else can? Here are four people, each with a different viewpoint on the same moment and a different preoccupation therein; a man bent on seduction, a girl flirting, another girl ready to die of humiliation as she watches, and her father planning his revenge. When they all sing together, each maintains his or her own musical character – romantic melody for the boy, skittering laughter for his target, sobs of pain for the girl outside, deep muttering for the father. Yet they combine to create one perfect whole that is greater than all of them togther – hence giving the audience a perspective on life itself.

That’s what opera is all about. Happy Monday, everyone.

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