Matthews, Campbell; Opie, P. O'Neill, Parkin, Dubinsky; Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, Opera Australia Chorus, Reggioli. Production: Moshinsky. EPC Distribution. OPOZ56009 (DVD), 131 mins., subtitled
Perhaps the reason for release of an opera performance on DVD needs an official reevaluation. There was a time, not so long ago, when logistics, cost and a potential market demanded that such a release be inspired by a sense of occasion — a particular production of note, a starry cast, a work that was crying out to be immortalized on video. These days, the availability of the technology, and the reduction in cost, has inevitably lowered the bar in terms of whether a show merits filming and releasing. There is certainly room in the catalogue for perfectly good performances, as opposed to exceptional ones, and this Rigoletto reaches that level.
Filmed in Sydney in 2010, this performance documents what's come to be called Elijah Moshinsky's "Dolce Vita" Rigoletto. Aside from a female extra costumed and wigged as an Anita Ekberg look-alike, and the courtiers (inevitably) dancing the twist during the opening party scene (the film and the dance craze both reached the public in 1960), there's not much else to suggest the Fellini-esque. No matter: Rigoletto is an opera that time-travels well, and ever since Jonathan Miller's effective ENO "Little Italy" Rigoletto some thirty years ago, this approach has continued. (This season, the Met offers one set in Las Vegas during the Rat Pack era.) As usual, updating both solves and presents problems; people become easier to relate to as sleazy types who look and act closer to what we'd imagine today. On the other hand, Gilda's hyper-naïveté becomes blurred by a petulant bored-girl image that comes and goes. Class distinction falls away, as is usually the case in updatings, and so Maddalena's coy reactions to the advances of the duke seem a bit puzzling. Nonetheless, the concept plays well on the whole, greatly aided by Michael Yeargan's fluid rotating set, which keeps the story moving smoothly.
In the title role, Alan Opie offers a solidly sung, well-acted jester. Lyricism and melting vocalism are missed to a degree in places such as the end of "Cortigiani, vil razza" or, particularly, "Piangi, fanciulla," both in Act II. But Opie's line is firm, top notes are secure, and aside from an odd unintentional diphthong to "e" that occasionally creeps into his "o" vowel, projection of text is clear and communicative. Emma Matthews's lyric coloratura is the right weight for the demands of the role of Gilda, and she is responsive to Moshinsky's concept (staged here by an assistant); Gilda is a gutsy young woman who defies her father's orders and, ultimately, willingly sacrifices her life. Matthews has most of the equipment to pull this off in terms of weight of voice, but the instrument lacks color. Likewise, while her staccatos and scale passages are impressive in "Caro nome," trills are fudged, except for the long final one, which sags below pitch. So, as a whole, it's a quite worthy effort that doesn't quite add up.
The vocal honors, perhaps not in the house (the crowd belongs to Matthews) but on the DVD, go to tenor Paul O'Neill as the Duke. O'Neill owns a bright lyric instrument, with a secure pocket into which he places everything from the upper passaggio on north, never failing to spin out his tone on a slender stream of breath. The passaggio-from-hell aria "Parmi veder le lagrime" is dispatched neatly, the cabaletta marred only by some silly staging for the chorus in the preceding ensemble; Rigoletto's opening to "Cortigiani" is likewise diluted by shtick. These "touches" serve only to lay a distracting idea on a powerful musical/vocal moment. Elizabeth Campbell, cast in the dual role of Giovanna/Maddalena, is a pro, who brings off these two incredibly diverse characters perfectly. David Parkin's Sparafucile is of a young-artist level; there's promise, but at this point his voice and physicality are both rather stiff. Gennadi Dubinski is a powerful Monterone; his over-zealous delivery of the wronged father's second outburst, however, causes the pitch to stray sharp.
Conductor Giovanni Reggioli takes a few standard cuts but includes some of Verdi's written cadenzas, as opposed to the traditional simplifications, most gratefully at the conclusion of the Duke and Gilda's duet, "È il sol dell'anima." Reggioli keeps the pace moving while allowing the singers plenty of room for expression. Would that they took more advantage of it! He does, however, begin the "Sì, vendetta" duet at a tempo and level of excitement that don't leave enough room for a build. The chorus members are thoroughly engaged and create individual characters, but they are encouraged by the production style to make far too many extraneous noises to do with the action, which signals "The music is not trusted here!" Cameron Kirkpatrick's TV direction succeeds at catching Moshinsky's "Kodak moments" while still keeping the action going.