As charter subscribers to AIR MAIL may remember, the inaugural issue of July 20, 2019, featured an item called “Rigoletto, Alfresco,” illustrated by an image that is hard to forget: the head and big round collar and hands with matching cuffs of a colossal Pennywise floating over twilight waters. Like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, he was crawling with “little” people the size of you or me. A brief text announced that summer’s blockbuster on the floating open-air stage of the Bregenz Festival, at the Austrian end of Lake Constance. Flagship productions there, mounted every other year, are engineered to take the breath away. Tackling Verdi’s tragedy of a court jester’s failed revenge, the designer-director Phillip Stölzl hit the mark, as you can see on the video filmed live the same season.
From the Renaissance court of Mantua, the action has migrated to a symbolic circus that encompasses the world and is populated with rambunctious artistes. Rigoletto—surprise!—is the spitting image of that supersize bozo who stares us down all night. As ringmaster, there’s the lady-killing Duke of Mantua.The convent-bred Gilda skips about in Dorothy’s ruby slippers and is hauled off to her doom by flying monkeys, but you won’t find a Wicked Witch of the West.
The clown, you should know, is no inanimate object. He turns his head, he gesticulates with his hands, and he bites his finger. He drops his jaw in the first scene, and there, in his mouth, is the Duke, surveying the shenanigans below. In the next scene, he opens his hand, and there, in his palm, stands Gilda. As the tragedy unfolds, his eyeballs go rolling around the set, freeing the eye sockets for further dramatic byplay. Then his nose falls off, exposing his cavernous nasal cavity, promptly populated. Then his tears start falling, like the spray of a firehose. Of course, extras fall in the lake. Love it or hate it, there’s a surreal logic to these macabre tableaux.
Perversely, Stölzl saves his most scabrous fantasy for “La donna è mobile,” a hit tune so infectious Verdi made his first Duke of Mantua rehearse it in secret. Think many-breasted sex workers tumbling in midair, exhibiting their charms with well-founded hostility. It’s all too, too Babylon Berlin. The shady Maddalena, who lures victims into the den of her brother, the assassin for hire, is a dominatrix, whip in hand.
As for the musical values, Bregenz isn’t Salzburg. What the festival delivers on the main stage are bankable titles (The Magic Flute, Carmen, West SideStory) cast mostly with reliable journeyman talent. Vladimir Stoyanov, who takes the title role, falls into that category. But sometimes, there are surprises. If the Duke is an entitled scuzzbag (and he is), Stephen Costello’s jubilant tenor and way with a phrase subject us to his fatal attraction. The doll-like Mélissa Petit is special, too. As the hornswoggled Gilda, rather than coast on the beauty of her music, she leans in, aglow with enjoyment.
Rigoletto streams on Carnegie Hall +, available on the Apple TV app, Spectrum, and Verizon Fios
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii