Rigoletto Stuns the Royal Opera House

David McVicar’s acclaimed production of Verdi’s tragedy is a triumph with costumes supervised by Mary Fisher as the expert cast inhabit a post-apocalyptic set with a medieval mystique.

The opening is a feast for the sartorially-inclined as an orgy spills from a sheet-metal facade and drapery swirls over farthingales and flesh tears out of dresses in a frenzy. The courtiers revel in fine doublets, jerkins and trunkhose while the antagonist Duke appears in a broad suit of armour and red cloak. Rigoletto the jester is a hunchback in black when he makes his fatal error in mocking the father of one of the Duke’s many conquests.

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In contrast Rigoletto’s hidden daughter Gilda – at home when the steel facade rotates to reveal two levels of girders and corrugated iron – is a delicate white flower in a plain white chemise. She simultaneously captured a fair maiden at home banned from venturing out and a more pre-Raphaelite figure like the Lady of Shallott from when Verdi was composing this piece in 1851.

When the duke arrives in disguise as her secret lover whom she met at church – the only place she was allowed outside due to Rigoletto’s foreboding worry that she could be kidnapped – he appears at the door in a brown leather jerkin with matching breeches and a sword as a classic romantic hero. He is no longer the fat and armoured aristocrat of the opening scene but a slim and delicate student whom she adores.

Innocence Lost

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John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott, 1888 (Tate Britain, London)

When the courtiers come to grab Gilda thinking she is actually Rigoletto’s lover they spill in howling like wolves in black jerkins with gold aiglets glinting in the darkness. Her capture is swift and Rigoletto takes her away as she confesses to having a lover. He takes her to the inn of Sparafucile, an assassin, and forces her to watch the Duke in his student guise as the host’s sister Maddalena descends from the room above in a loose chemise and ruffled skirt. The Duke sings the famous “La donna è mobile” or “Woman is fickle” while flirting with her, much to the horror of Gilda outside. Rigoletto tells Gilda to prepare to leave for Verona by putting on man’s clothes while he completes his revenge deal with an assassin.

Gilda loves the Duke despite knowing him to be unfaithful and returns dressed as a man in a black jerkin. Meanwhile Maddalena, who is smitten with the Duke despite resisting his advances, begs Sparafucile to spare his life. Sparafucile reluctantly promises her that if by midnight anyone comes to the door he will kill them and hand Rigoletto the body to deceive him. Gilda, overhearing this exchange, resolves to sacrifice herself for the Duke by entering the house and is stabbed.

A Beautiful Tragedy

Overall this interpretation is largely minimalist with the whole performance taking place on a turntable presenting the different sides of a sheet metal construction. This dark and austere setting is brought to life by rich costumes that create the courtly air of the play. No character particularly stands out – besides the protagonist in his spiky jester’s hat – just as groups like the courtiers who look the same are well-individualised by the details of their dress. The deviousness of the Duke is enhanced by his shape-shifting persona from armour to a red cloak that both give him a fat patriarchal appearance in stark contrast to his poor underfed student look in brown that won Gilda’s heart. Gilda makes a tragic journey from her virginal gown to a man’s costume that provides her downfall – both in her heroic act in sacrificing herself for the duke like a knight and also the mistaken identity as the assassin cuts her down thinking her a beggar at the door.

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