Rigoletto - Lucic, Damrau, Florez

Forgive the pun, but Rigoletto is cursed on video. One of the greatest and most popular operas of all time, with great roles for the baritone, tenor, and soprano, and there's barely any good video of it around. Every video that I've had has disappointed in some way. In recent years the title role has been hogged on video by Carlos Alvarez and Leo Nucci, two perfectly serviceable but unremarkable baritones. Well, the curse is finally broken -- this video from Dresden, filmed in 2008, has strong performances from all the leads, a thoughtful "modern" production, and jumps to the top of the pack as the Rigoletto to get on video. I am excited too because next week I have tickets to see both  Zeljko Lucic and Diana Damrau in Rigoletto. This video whets my appetite. Fabio Luisi's conducting throughout the video is sensitive and atmospheric.

The weakest vocal performance belongs to that of Juan Diego Florez, as the debauched Duke of Mantua. Florez has since dropped the role from his repertory, and I can understand why. It's a good stab at the role, and he has the high notes, but Florez's tenor is essentially too lean and slender for the blustery, showboaty music Verdi wrote for the Duke. He's more at ease in the more lyrical moments of the opera, like the Act One duet with Gilda. His best moment is in "Parmi verder le lagrime." Also, Florez seems inherently uncomfortable playing such a cruel character. He wears a mullet, and tries his best to look uber-slimy, but the role is not a natural fit for him either vocally or temperamentally. Florez being Florez, he infuses the role with his typical vocal polish, but I'd deem the performance a mixed success, at best. Here is his "La donna e mobile." You can hear how a tenor the aria really needs a lyric tenor with a beefier voice. It's curiously underpowered coming from Florez.

It's funny how Florez isn't really able to overcome the challenges of not being a "natural Duke," but Diana Damrau is able to make something of Gilda, even if temperamentally, she's not the typical Gilda. Damrau's whole persona is that of a boldly confident woman, not that of a shy, sheltered girl. Her voice is bright and a bit on the metallic side, with a secure upper extension. She interpolates an E-flat into the end of "Si vendetta." Vocally she can do almost anything (although her trill is weak). Her timbre just lacks that sweetness and girlishness of the classic Gildas like Erna Berger or Hilde Gueden. But this more sexually adventurous, womanly Gilda worked for me. It made me rethink my usual conception of the character, and how most sopranos have a hard time convincing audiences that they really are a sheltered teen. Damrau didn't even try -- this was a girl who was eager, even impatient, to leave her father's overprotective house. She sang "Caro nome" as a sexual fantasy, with her stretching on her bed. I just wish Damrau had a touch more vulnerability to both her voice and her personality. As it is, one can't picture this Gilda willingly walking into her death for anyone, much less a faithless rapist. Another quibble I have with Damrau is the fact that when she sings, the way she positions her mouth always makes her look like she's smiling slightly. This can be slightly jarring when she's say, dying.

The real reason for this set though is Lucic's performance in the title role. Lucic managed to do something that Nucci and Alvarez could not in their various videos in various productions -- make me feel Rigoletto's pain. Lucic has reclaimed the opera as truly Rigoletto's story. And he's done it without any cheap effects that unfortunately have become so common in this role. (Watch Leo Nucci's almost unbearable interpretation in recent years.) No barking, no sobbing, no hamming, just pure, heartfelt singing. Lucic doesn't have the kind of big, thunderous baritone of Leonard Warren or Robert Merrill, but he sings the role with beauty, style, and feeling. His "Cortigiani" and two duets with his daughter in Act Two broke my heart. His jester is younger and less pathetic than usual -- he has no usual physical deformity. His Rigoletto is played as a more-or-less normal man who is driven to terrible acts. The prelude begins with him alone onstage, as he puts on his jester costume. This establishes sympathy for the character that doesn't wane for the next two hours.

The supporting cast is uniformly strong. The lovely lyric soprano Hei Kyung Hong is luxury casting as Countess Ceprano. Georg Zeppenfeld's Sparafucile is appropriately menacing, and also a rare find nowadays -- a deep rich bass. Christina Mayer's zaftig, earthy Maddalena makes a good foil for Damrau.

The production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff is one of those modern updates that doesn't change the story. The first scene is a pretty wild orgy. The Duke is cavorting with topless chicken dancers. People are wearing modern clothes, but the production (like the Decker Traviata) has a timeless feel to it. It tells the story in a straightforward, effective, if somewhat stylized way. One of the loveliest scenes is Gilda's bedroom, a simple white room with some crosses painted on the wall, and a small, girlish bed. It really captures the repressively sheltered feel of Gilda's upbringing. The only major change the production makes is with the character of Gilda, who is less of a sheltered girl than an extremely fecund woman. But as I said, I am not sure how much of this is the director's vision, and how much of this is simply Damrau herself, as I've seen Damrau in several roles and she always projects the same almost brassy, bold sexuality.

Overall this is a great modern video of Rigoletto. For those of you who despaired for years at "yet another Nucci/Alvarez Rigoletto" snap this one up -- finally a baritone who really sings the role! It's not available on blu-ray yet, only DVD.


  1. Thanks for the review, I have to watch this! I love the idea of a brassy and confident Gilda.

    I saw Nucci in the role several years ago and he is pretty excruciating. It's more a performance of an Italian baritone performing Rigoletto than it is anything that even is attempting to be mimetic. I think he took a bow mid-performance. It was actually with Damrau, whom I do not remember being particularly brassy on that occasion, but I believe the performance predated the production on this video.

  2. Zerbinetta, Damrau whenever I've seen her has always been brassy and confident. She was even that way in Lucia. She is, uh, very well-endowed, and must have it stipulated into her costumes that her breasts must be nearly hanging out in every production. But it kind of matches her voice. Her voice doesn't really sound very sweet or girlish, but the ease at which she dispatches all the music - amazing. Lucic's Rigoletto might be the least hammy yet most touching I've seen on modern video.

  3. Thank you for your review. Although I generally do not like modern updates, I will be checking this one out.

    Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Damrau and Lucic in "Rigoletto" at the Met. They both were excellent (the overrated Filianotti was the Duke; he sounded OK at times, but there was also very noticeable straining and I'm sure I heard some boos during his solo bow at the end). I agree with you that Damrau's voice lacks a certain sweetness and girlishness as Gilda, yet she is still very effective in the role. I watched from the standing room area in the orchestra section, so it was hard to tell how dramatically involved the singers were without being able to see their faces too well (although Damrau's intensity was evident; at times she even seemed almost manic or frenzied, but not in an over-the-top way). Lucic struck me as a very low key interpreter of Rigoletto, both vocally and dramatically. He acted mostly with his beautiful voice, with movement and gestures kept to a minimum. Even when he threw his scepter down in anger, it was kind of understated. And when he threw the courtiers out in order to be alone with Gilda after her defilement by the Duke, it was, again, very low key. The courtiers referred to him as a "madman" while they were leaving, but he hardly seemed to fit that description. I found myself not as emotionally involved with this performance of "Rigoletto' as I have been with others I've seen, though I was moved at times. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Lucic's performance and would have to say that, at least vocally, he is probably the best singer of the role today.

    I would like to say something about your hostility toward Leo Nucci in your review. There seems to be little middle ground with Nucci. There are those who love him, and those who think he is terribly overrated. I love him. He has long been one of my favorite baritones, especially in the role of Rigoletto. And with more than 400 performnces, I think he has established himself as one of the great interpreters of the role. There is no one today who I would rather see and here as Rigoletto than Nucci - even at age 70. And I would certainly never refer to him as merely "servicable," nor would I say that there is anything "unremarkable" about him. But that is just my opinion, and I respect yours. And there are many who agree with you. There are also places, however, where Nucci is a beloved superstar, such as at La Scala, where about 5 years ago he sang a gala recital in honor of his 30th anniversary there. He sounded great, and every aria was greeted with long and delirious applause by the adoring crowd. I do think that Leo Nucci is one of the greatest Verdi baritones of this era, and it is amazing that he still sings so well at 70 years old. But again, this is just my opinion, and perhaps I will come to rethink it as I see more performances by singers like Lucic.

  4. James, my issue with Nucci is i feel his Rigoletto has become a series of mannerisms strung together. The voice is dry and lacks the range needed for Rigoletto. But he sure does the bug-eyed, hammy thing well. I find it tiresome. You are right though -- Nucci's Rigoletto is definitely something people either love or hate.

  5. Thank you for replying to my comment. I just found your blog today and I love it! I plan to visit it often. Your reviews/commentary are thoughtful, comprehensive, intelligent and informative. And even though we disagree about Nucci, I appreciate the fact that you have strong opinions and aren't shy about expressing them. The worst thing a blog can be is boring, and your blog is anything but that! I appreciate all the time you must put into this. Keep up the good work.

  6. Thanks James! I hope you have fun reading some of my entries. I also write a lot about dance if you're interested.


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