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Opera on DVD: 'Rigoletto' with Flórez

available at Amazon
Verdi, Rigoletto, D. Damrau, J. D. Flórez, Ž. Lučić, Semperoper Dresden, F. Luisi

(released on October 25, 2010)
Virgin 6418689 4 | 2h17
We recently had the chance, in a celebrity recital, to hear Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez sing the major arias of the Duke of Mantua, from Verdi's Rigoletto. That concert, as I wrote then, was probably the closest Washington will ever come to seeing Flórez's Duke of Mantua on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage, a role that he wisely chose to preview on his home territory in Lima and then sing only in a few carefully chosen houses. If you missed it, your remaining choice at this point is this DVD of the production at the Semperoper Dresden, recorded in the summer of 2008. The value of the DVD is mainly as a document of Flórez's debut in this role, as neither the production or the sound quality particularly recommends it. Even the Staatskapelle Dresden, which normally plays so well, sounds a little disjointed under Fabio Luisi. Perhaps at some point Flórez will make a studio or even live concert recording of the work.

Like the rest of the cast, Flórez sounds magnificent, with his clear, ringing tone very close to its utter best. Unfortunately, the other reason that he has been wise to give this role up, more or less, is that he is not very good in the role of a hateful villain. When the Rigoletto (a booming, snarling Željko Lučić, in excellent voice) and the Gilda (a marvelous Diana Damrau, with her slightly sharp-edged soprano burnished to a tone closer to the innocent golden warmth needed for the role) are less sympathetic than the Duke, you have a problem. This seems to be one of the goals of this production, directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, which positions Rigoletto as a sort of villain, particularly for his near-jailing of Gilda, his paternal paranoia -- quite justified in the hellish world of the corrupt Mantuan court -- becoming more like a creepy possessiveness. However, if you have three principals this good, the staging will be a vocal success, and the supporting cast is all quite good, too.

Anyone looking for a traditional production of Rigoletto is going to be disappointed. Putting such slavish traditionalism aside (a handicap to the enjoyment of cutting-edge opera, to be sure), Lehnhoff's modern updating, with the Duke of Mantua as a smarmy 1970s lothario, mostly works with the libretto. Verdi's radiant music, which shines with the virtue of Gilda and even with that fatherly side of the title role, does not so much conflict with Lehnhoff's ideas as help to create a more complex characterization. Gilda is both innocent and sexually curious, Rigoletto both vicious and vulnerable, and even the Duke both predatory and possibly susceptible to love. (Thus, during the Act III quartet, Gilda seems to imagine the Duke singing to her instead of to Giovanna.) The parallels between the Duke and Don Giovanni are obvious in the score: the offstage banda and string group providing music for opening party scene, and the appearance of the wronged Monterone, whose daughter has been seduced by the Duke, given music not unlike that for the arrival of the Commendatore. With Flórez's Duke, one is reminded of a version of Don Juan who is actually wounded in love after a life of dissolution: the Vicomte de Valmont in Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses comes to mind.

Lehnhoff emphasizes a sort of Faustian side of this opera, with Rigoletto climbing out of a hole during the overture, then putting on makeup and jester costume, with vaguely phallic protuberances on his hat. When he is ready he stands and commands the curtain to rise on the Duke's party with a wave of his hand: by the end, his own shadow will come to seek retribution, as Monterone's curse is fulfilled in a Dantesque vein, complimented by the devilish costumes from the earlier acts. The opening party is set in the Duke's trashy black marble casino of a palace, with svelte dancer supernumeraries in animal costumes and fake cleavage (sets by Raimund Bauer, costumes by Bettina Walter). The Duke is costumed with a terrible curly mullet, glittery silver tux shirt and tails, and John Boehnerish orange self-tanner face (what a thing to do to a handsome singer like Flórez). One might advocate possibly only listening to the audio if you do not like this sort of updated production, but the sound is pretty bad, with the miking all at the front of the stage and some singing at the back lost.

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