QandA

Darkness and Light

Next month, Bel Canto at Caramoor presents concert performances of Rigoletto and Lucrezia Borgia, with Will Crutchfield conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke's. BRIAN KELLOW speaks with Crutchfield about the enduring mystery and appeal of Rigoletto.

Crutchfield HDL 614
Crutchfield at work at Caramoor
Photo by Gabe Palacio

OPERA NEWS: I wanted to talk to you about Rigoletto, because I'm so consistently disappointed by productions of it that I see. I didn't care at all for the Met's Michael Mayer staging, set in Las Vegas. 

WILL CRUTCHFIELD: The dumbest thing I ever saw, from the standpoint of a suspension of disbelief, was in that production. You see the lights of the car come on when Rigoletto sees … before the voice … then she's still alive in the trunk. They have wheels! There are no emergency rooms in Las Vegas? I was a little bit critical of the Jonathan Miller Mafia production a quarter of a century ago, but compared to this…. I don't like it when the settings and costumes start to take over. I'm happy for Rigoletto to be set in a more recent time, but the trouble is that starts to become the focus.

The thing that strikes me about this opera and Lucrezia Borgia, which was so closely linked to it in Verdi's mind, is the desire to show morally distorted and horrible characters in a surprising and varied light. The first thing we see about Rigoletto is that he is absolutely callous to the feelings of others, including those who have been wounded in their most tender spot. We then see the same thing happen to him. He gets what's coming to him, but we weep for him and have sympathy for him because both Victor Hugo and Verdi are determined to show us that even people who do dreadful things are human beings, that forces may have worked upon them. There, but for the grace of God, goes each of us. I think the bold and shocking thing is that Verdi — and Hugo, too — doesn't flinch from showing us absolutely bad behavior from the character with whom our heart is supposed to identify. I think this is something a little new in drama. There are ways you can see it in Shakespeare, but certainly in operatic drama. The libretto sort of directs us to whom to admire, and we are not made to feel our hearts going out to someone who by normal standards deserves to have a pretty bad outcome. I think that is a profound appeal to human sympathy, and the interesting thing is, if you are going to turn from that to the Duke, who is shown as pretty much a stereotype of greed and entitlement, a person who has no problem with simply taking what he wants and ignoring the consequences for others ... in a certain way, that too is morally monstrous, and yet that is a way in which powerful and charismatic people always behave and are expected somewhat to behave. It doesn't necessarily have to reach the level of criminality, but let's just say you're a big-deal famous person, and you are supposed to show up at an event, and hundreds of people are waiting, and all kinds of workers are doing their jobs, and so forth, and you wind up being forty-five minutes late. Nobody cares. Everybody expects that to be the right of the powerful. It's a firing offense if you're a stagehand to show up forty-five minutes late, but if you're the president, everybody sort of deals with it. That's an absurd example, but you work up the scale from that. You have the Duke, this super-entitled reckless guy, but he's charming as hell. It makes people happy to be beamed on by his favor. 

In the play [Le Roi s'Amuse], you get to see more of the King and hear a lot more of his philosophy of life. He's not quite so oblivious — rather he has thought it through and is ready to explain to people why it's the best way for the world to go. He has a certain charm and a certain self-deprecation. There isn't room for all that in the opera libretto. But Verdi returns it simply through the charm of the music. The Duke has a quality of playfulness and sex appeal that is a color reserved exclusively for him and the show, and it is very well drawn. 

ON: Do you agree with me that Rigoletto is very seldom given a dark enough production onstage?

WC: I would say that I would like to make it both darker and lighter than it usually is. I think what's interesting is the extreme contrast between light and dark. It has the glittering surface of court life and the joie de vivre of amorous adventures, but it shows us also the dark underside of that and the consequences it can have and often does have — without flinching from any of it.

ON:  Rigoletto always feels so fresh and vital to me — much as La Traviata does. With those two, I always feel some sense of how much they must have transfixed their earlier audiences.

WC: Those are two operas were embraced by audiences from the start. They have undergone periods where the critical trend was to be dismissive, but they have never gone out of popularity. In the old Met annals, where they had excerpts of reviews, there was a review of Antonio Scotti that said, "Mr. Scotti made as much of Verdi's stick figure of a jester as could be made." They were all occupied in getting their heads around Wagner and Debussy and they were trying to keep up and grasp what the new order of things was going to be. Very often, in order to get your head around the new, you kind of have to turn the old into a bit of a caricature just as a jumping-off place. The public has never made that mistake.

ON: Some years ago, Alex Ross wrote a very interesting piece in The New Yorker in which he said that he finds "Caro nome" a chilling aria — because the orchestra seems to be commenting on the trap that is being laid for Gilda. Is that how you hear that aria?

WC: I don't agree with Alex there. Music makes its appeal through illustrating feelings, but partly through illustrating the relationship of one key to another, or one tone to another. It has its own values and powers that are independent of emotional connotations, and then, if the music has those powers to a strong degree, you can sometimes focus whatever emotion you want onto that power. It's like an electrical current of a certain strength, but you can decide to plug it into your vacuum cleaner or your stereo. If you want to hear that the music in "Caro nome" is foreboding, you can absolutely do that, but if you want to hear it as being a peal of laughter, you can do that as well. For me, the trap that she's walking into comes rather more from the coda to the aria, where she repeats while the conspirators are gathering. There, to my mind, Verdi inserts a new musical element to the dark side of the drama, those rising chromatic scales in the orchestra that we haven't heard before, while she's singing. I hear the aria as a jewel of fresh, innocent, naïve first love. I view it as expressing what is inside Gilda's unknowing heart, rather than what is in the mind of the observer who knows that she's in danger.

ON: Charles Osborne says absolutely that he does not think that Verdi was "a conscious innovator." How do you respond to that?

WC: It's a very subtle question. He was a conscious innovator in wanting to tweak the style of opera toward the aspects that he felt most strongly. Those are essentially the ability to respond to dramatic situations that are more subtle than had traditionally been possible, and the ability to change the pace of dramatic action to deal with it. In the older scheme, each emotional state, each situation, was arrived at through a transition. There's a transition, and there's a period of stasis that expresses where we get to in that transition. What Verdi wants to be able to do is to make a transition and another and another and another — to move rapidly through emotional situations while the music keeps continuous. One of the great examples of that is the scene between Violetta and Germont in Traviata. Normally that would be a big grand duet between two principal characters — essentially it would have three movements, recitatives and whatever interruptions, but there would be a first movement that is some kind of allegro, and the essential slow movement, and then the cabaletta. If you break down their scene, it's almost seven movements. It's little bits that last only as long as they need to, and yet there is musical coherence. That is one thing that Verdi wanted to be able to do. The big example in Rigoletto is the first scene, where it's all held together by the dance music, but we get the Duke's ballad, the interruption of Monterone, Rigoletto's mockery, the curse, a bit of flirting between the Duke and Countess Ceprano. He weaves quite a lot of dramatic content into a piece that feels continuous. Conscious innovator? It depends on what is meant by "conscious." But when you see how he directed his librettists — if he's telling them, 'make this verse shorter, give this verse here and that one there,' that means he is guiding the streamlining of the dramatic process. 

ON: I love the way Verdi characterizes Sparafucile. Do you think that he intended for Sparafucile to have an element of buffo?

WC: There's an important element here. I think the answer is yes, but a buffo at whom no one would ever laugh. What I mean by that is that Verdi was extremely receptive — increasingly so through his long career — to the combination of the languages of opera buffa and opera seria, and the person who made that possible for the nineteenth-century Italians was Rossini, because he and his team of singers, his community of singers, were really the first to break down the line by which a singer's career would be in the buffa world or the seria world. Once you got the same population of singers in those two worlds, you could get the musical languages of the two worlds cross-filtered. But look where Sparafucile first comes from — Verdi's mind first went to this scene where the two thugs meet in the street in Lucrezia Borgia. Because he adopted that form of duet, the orchestra plays the melody, and the two guys have a dialogue, and they don't actually sing a duet. In that case, the equivalent of Sparafucile is clearly a basso buffo. 

This also comes back to Hugo, because one of his innovations was that he helped make a grand tragedy, a big serious play, more palatable to the middle class audiences of Paris by including quite a bit of humor. There are a lot of outright funny things in Le Roi s'Amuse and in Lucrezia Borgia. It was clearly Hugo's feeling that you need the relief of a chuckle to look at all this darkness. I mean, there's the scene where they're about to carry off this innocent girl. It's a rape scene, but it's treated as a comedy. 

ON: One thing that almost always disappoints me in productions of Rigoletto is how Maddalena is portrayed. 

WC: Don't get me started. We are not doing a stage production here. There is nothing stupider than exaggerating something that is already a pronounced stereotype. We all know, okay, she's a hooker — she's the bait for the person who is susceptible to the bait. Just play it! If you emphasize, it means you didn't get it. It happens consistently, because the majority of people staging opera, I'm sorry to say, have a very primitive grasp, if any, of how opera works its dramatic magic. This is why it is always stupid to bring in Broadway directors, film directors, and figure that you can get them up to speed on what opera is between inviting them and setting up the project. You cannot get up to speed on what opera is while doing a zillion other things.

ON: There's only one thing I don't like about Caramoor — the time of year at which it takes place. It's just so unbearably hot under that tent in mid-July. Is there an alternative plan for the future?

WC: Soon, we are going to be able to air condition that tent. There is some sophisticated concept that has to do with venting and holes, and it's also the hi-tech possibility, which is to have air conditioners located far away and connected by underground pipes. One way or another we will do it. Caramoor cannot grow the way it has the potential to grow when we have to exclude from our audience people who can't deal with the heat. The new CEO [JEFFREY P. HAYDON] understands that. Something will happen. spacer 

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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6