Metrotainment: Wrangling with 'Rigoletto'

Julia Pevzner’s interpretation of the Verdi opera moves the setting from the late 19th century to the 1920s and ’30s.

Julia Pevzner (photo credit: Courtesy)
Julia Pevzner
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rigoletto is not only one of the most popular operas ever written; it also provides fertile ground for improvising on the performance format.
While there are, naturally, plenty of renditions of Verdi’s masterpiece that stick to the tried-and-tested aesthetics and period setting, there have also been a number that have taken the mid-19th century work into a whole other era and cultural backdrop. Jonathan Miller’s 1989 production of the opera, which transposed Verdi’s story into New York’s mob-controlled Little Italy of the 1950s, is a case in point.
Julia Pevzner says she has no problem with that at all, and that her reading of the work, which will be performed at the Haifa Auditorium this Sunday and Monday (both beginning at 8:30 p.m.), also takes some liberties with the original draft. “There is something very flexible and accommodating about Rigoletto, which allows you to play around with it while still remaining loyal to Verdi’s original intent,” says the director. “You could set the opera in the 16th century, or whenever you want, it really doesn’t matter.”
Pevzner believes that Rigoletto’s enduring popularity, as well as its malleability, could be attributed to the universality of the themes it portrays. “In general, the opera is about two things – the corruption of a man who has no limits when it comes to women and his own pleasure – that’s the Duke – and Rigoletto himself, to my mind, is a tragic figure who goes along with the corruption and doesn’t give it a second thought as long as it doesn’t affect his own family.”
Verdi’s opera, which premiered in Venice on March 11, 1851, is based on a play by Victor Hugo called Le roi s’amuse (The King Having Fun), which tells the tale of the licentious duke of Mantua, his court jester Rigoletto and Rigoletto’s alluring daughter, Gilda. The ducal clown’s previously carefully calculated world collapses around him when his daughter falls in love with the duke but subsequently sacrifices her own life to save her lover from her father’s hired killers.
Next week’s production features Aryeh Lipski as conductor, with the principal vocalist roles filled by Danish tenor Adam Frandsen with American baritone David Small and compatriot soprano Sarah Hibbard. Surprisingly, although completely satisfied with Verdi’s work, Pevzner says she is not exactly enamored with the original text he worked from.
“I don’t like the Hugo play,” she declares, and says she has set her rendition way beyond Hugo’s temporal confines.
“I have gone for the 1930s and those happy-go-lucky times; you know, the late ’20s to early ’30s, when men went in search of pleasures. That, for me, connected with the original time setting.”
The opera’s chances in the ongoing popularity stakes are, of course, boosted by the fact that it contains some of the art form’s most beloved arias, such as “La donna e mobile,” which is instantly recognizable even to people who have never set foot in an opera house. But the score can be misleading. The character of Rigoletto, spurious deeds notwithstanding, generally manages to find his way into the audience’s heart thanks to his mellifluous vocal parts.
“Yes, he manages to get the members of the audience to like him despite the fact that he is a totally repulsive type,” observes the director. “He is ugly inside, and corrupt. Even so, because of Verdi’s music, we stay loyal to him and we listen to his singing as if it were some sweet delight being offered up to us, rather than treating him as the despicable sadist he really is.”
The time-bracket shift is not unique to Rigoletto. The libretto of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball), for example, was based on a play by Eugene Scribe that depicted the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden. However, as a result of censorship regulations and political sensibilities, the action was relocated from Europe and placed in Boston during the British colonial era.
“There is plenty of politics in Verdi’s oeuvre,” says Pevzner. “You only have to look at something like Nabucco, which also has a social agenda. I think Verdi had a personal agenda too, and he wanted to express his pain and sorrow.”
Verdi’s two children died in infancy, followed shortly by the death of his wife at the age of only 26. “Verdi brings a lot of his own life, and artistic approach, to Rigoletto,” notes Pevzner.
That, naturally, offers directors plenty of room to maneuver when addressing the raw material. However, more than anything, Pevzner approaches Rigoletto as a highly emotive work.
“It is such a human story. Here we have a father who is tragically duped, a sadist whose world is suddenly turned upside-down when his family is faced with mortal danger and then suffers badly. I think Verdi did a wonderful job with this opera.”
This is Pevzner’s second bite at the Rigoletto cherry in recent times, having directed a production based on a format devised by British opera director and producer David Pountney at the Israeli Opera House in Tel Aviv earlier this year.
But the Haifa venture is her own baby.
“I sort of revisited David Pountney’s interpretation of the opera,” she says.
“He was my teacher, and most parts of the production were already in place. On the other hand, the Haifa show is mostly my own invention. It should be interesting to see how it all pans out.”
Rigoletto will be performed at the Haifa Auditorium on December 30 and 31 at 8:30 p.m. For tickets and more information: (04) 859-9499.