Despite its status as Guiseppe Verdi’s crowning glory, Scottish Opera’s Rigoletto has little to offer beyond the strength of its singers’ voices. At best, it is a beautiful rendition of the opera’s music, and at worst, an exposition of the very literal objectification of women in Verdi’s tale.
This being said, however, the talent of the performers cannot be denied. The live orchestra were sharp, providing beautiful foundations on which the singers build their performances. Particularly poignant were the moments when the orchestra went silent, making the voices on stage all the more raw. It is endlessly impressive to witness the apparent ease with which the singers perform. Their voices seem to fly out of their mouths, and the control they exhibit could not be clearer. Stand-out moments include David Shipley as Sparafucile, whose rich bass tones thrum through the theatre (I felt like I was listening to mahogany!), and Lina Johnson’s Gilda, whose soprano envolées ring high and clear like a crystal bell.
A feature of Rigoletto that never fails to satisfy is its use of an ensemble of male voices to create atmosphere and further the plot. Their physicality is strong, and they certainly contribute to the mob mentality exhibited on stage. That their voices were used to create a wind sound effect was also a nice touch.
The set was quite spare for most of the performance, using lighting to cleverly keep most of the stage in the dark to heighten the sense of Gilda’s isolation, or Rigoletto’s estrangement from society. It is a bold decision, however, to rely almost exclusively on the physicality of the singers to bring across the storyline, especially as opera typically uses extensive set design to bolster its world-building. Thanks to arias’ tendency to repeat themselves and overly stretch phrases, it became almost tedious to watch. Aris Argiris’ Rigoletto was very strong vocally, but relied on this too heavily, which meant that delivery of his storyline faltered.
Designer John Morell uses mannequins to represent a flurry of dancers in the ballroom scene, and to emphasise the Duke of Mantua’s philandering ways. This is effective in the first instance, but is overdone in the second. Body parts littered across the stage clearly highlight the objectification and dissection of the female body by the Duke (Adam Smith), but this becomes altogether uncomfortable when he sings to a severed torso. Perhaps this is the point. It remains, however, a jarring and explicit reminder that art that is considered canonical succeeds at the expense of women.
Indeed, Rigoletto supposedly concerns itself with the plight of ‘the most marginalised people’ (Robert Thicknesse). This opera’s story revolves around the eponymous character, who is disabled and mocked by society. It is overwhelmingly clear, however, that the only people who face real consequences in the story are the women. Gilda, who fulfils the long-standing trope of the infallibly pure and good female character, is raped and ultimately murdered in the name of ‘love’. Yet the story is determined to make us feel sorry for Rigoletto rather than her, reminding us that he is the real victim, having lost the daughter that he has kept isolated from the world for the duration of her life.
These criticisms apply to the original writing, which of course cannot be changed. I simply seek to question what kind of art we choose to display. Stories written in the 1800s perpetuate damaging messages that activists around the world are consistently trying to dismantle. I left the theatre with a creeping feeling in my back, having just watched two hours of men using women as pawns (quite literally) to exact revenge on one another. It is a narrative I have seen played out too many times, and one that no charming rendition of La donna è mobile can save.
PHOTOS: Scottish Opera