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From the Past

Films on the to-do list

  • Armageddon Time
  • Black Widow
  • Chimes at Midnight
  • The Killing of a Sacred Deer
  • Last Christmas
  • Remember Sunday
  • Shazam! 2
  • Thor: Love and Thunder
  • Spy Guys

Opera Chats: Rigoletto (Bregenzer Festspiele, 2019)

Set on the Bregenz Lake Stage in Austria and part of the Bregenz Festival, the Wiener Philharmoniker are conducted by Enrique Mazzola in a production directed by Philipp Stölzl. The stage is centered around a huge mechanical clown head and two hands, one of which holds a balloon.

Rigoletto is an opera in three acts that premiered in Venice in March 1851, with music by Giuseppe Verdi and libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. It’s based on a French play from 1832 by Victor Hugo.

The Duke of Mantua (Stephen Costello) is a notorious womanizer, seducing women all over Mantua. After having had his fun with the daughter of Count Monterone (Kostas Smorginas), the Count curses both the Duke and the Duke’s jester, Rigoletto (Vladimir Stoyanov).

Rigoletto has a daughter himself, Gilda (Mélissa Petit), whom he keeps safely hidden away from predatory noblemen. She goes to church every day, and there she has fallen in love with a handsome man pretending to be a poor student – but is really the Duke in disguise.

Miklós Sebestyén – Sparafucile
Katrin Wundsam – Maddalena/Giovanna
Wolfgang Stefan Schwaiger – Marullo
Paul Schweinester – Borsa
Jorge Eleazar – Count Ceprano
Léonie Renaud – Countess Ceprano
Hyunduk Kim – A Page

This discussion contains spoilers for both plot and ending.

Stage Designer – Heike Vollmer
Costumes – Kathi Maurer
Video director – Felix Breisach

■ ■ ■

Francis: Another month, another opera!

Traxy: Indeed.

F: This is another open air production, but it looks like the stage is smaller than the Sydney Handa Opera stage.

T: Smaller and infinitely creepier.

F: You don’t like clowns?

T: I’m not super keen, to be honest. I’ve never found them funny or understood the appeal. So it’s that rather than actual clown phobia.

F: I would strongly suggest anyone with a clown phobia give this production a wide berth, because the stage comprises a giant clown head, two giant hands, one of which holds a giant balloon.

T: As staging goes, I mean it’s brilliant, really. The hands that move around, all the fingers, and the clown head managing to show so many expressions despite being mechanical, from slight movement of eyelids and mouth. It’s remarkable.

F: It’s the opposite of traditional.

T: Did you like it?

F: I’m a traditionalist.

T: So that’s a no, then.

F: I found it interesting for sure, good way to mix it up some, but I think it can be confusing to newcomers.

T: I won’t deny it was unclear at times. The Wikipedia summary seemed to show a very different scenario to what was playing out on stage.

F: I admire the ingenuity of it all. How the stage changed from looking like Rigoletto’s costume to fracturing into pieces.

T: Much like Rigoletto himself.

F: Exactly, yes. It’s cleverly done. You also get a much greater sense of it being staged on water compared to Sydney.

T: Yes, at times it looked like people were at risk of making a splash if they put a foot wrong.

F: And then they did! Landed in the water, I mean. Deliberately.

T: Yeah, they were pushed overboard.

F: Or jumped!

T: I think they did the production in August so the water of Lake Constance will probably be at its warmest, I would’ve thought. Probably quite refreshing.

F: Bregenz is in Austria, right?

T: Yes, it’s by Lake Constance, or Bodensee to the locals.

F: You’ve been?

T: Not to the Bregenz Festival, but we did stay a night in Bregenz in 2012. We were going around the lake the day before, exploring Meersburg and Lindau on the German side, then popped across the border to Bregenz at night.

F: I’ve never been anywhere near there. What was it like?

T: Grey. We didn’t see the town, we went to the hotel, took our clothes to a nearby laundromat, grabbed a pizza from a place next door, then went back to the hotel to hang stuff up to dry. I remember there only being a single duvet, so didn’t sleep very well. What we thought was a spare pillow on the shelf turned out to be another duvet when we looked in the morning, so had we realised that the night before we could have slept much better!

F: So it was memorable?

T: For the wrong reasons, maybe. It would be nice to go back and see the town properly. It was a Sunday when we were there, and that part of the world completely shuts down on a Sunday, so not much fun to walk around when everywhere’s shut.

F: I get that. But this lake that it’s set on, it’s on the border between Germany and Austria?

T: Yes, and Switzerland.

F: Switzerland as well?

T: Yup, but we didn’t go across the border because we weren’t sure about if we needed to pay to use the roads, or how to get the thing that says we paid to use the roads, and we didn’t want to get any Swiss francs beforehand, so instead of the southern, counter-clockwise route around the lake through Switzerland, we took the northern, clockwise route through Germany. No regrets there, though, it was beautiful. I think one of the Daniel Craig Bond films also features the Bregenz Festival, by the way, but I don’t recall the details.

F: A place with international renown.

T: Clearly! I just picked it so we’d get another night in Austria, to be perfectly honest. But anyway. We didn’t swim in the lake when we were there, or get anywhere near where the festival takes place.

F: Maybe next time. So. This was your first time with Rigoletto. First impressions, disregarding the creepy clown stage?

T: I really liked it.

F: Excellent! Tell me more. What did you like about it?

T: The melodies. They were amazing!

F: I agree. Verdi did good.

T: He really did. I don’t even know the words how to express it, but it felt like top tier opera in so many ways. The ending is a bit baffling to a modern audience. It was doing so well until that point.

F: Gilda’s decision to sacrifice herself?

T: Yes. Not that she chose to sacrifice herself for love – this is opera, after all – but how she was right there and witnessed the Duke saying exactly the same things to Maddalena that he had previously said to her. Like, don’t sacrifice yourself to save that unfaithful arsehole!

F: A married man, no less.

T: Yes, and he wasn’t going to stop being an arsehole either. He made that abundantly clear. Liù sacrifices herself out of love too, but in a very different context. Maddalena didn’t want the Duke dead because she loved him, but he wasn’t going to stay with her and live happily ever after.

F: I agree.

T: It’s not a case of “I’ll give my life to spare his so they can live together forever”, it’s “I’ll give my life to spare his because I’m a fucking idiot who can’t let go.”

F: Succinctly put. It was my sister’s one complaint with it too, actually.

T: Oh, really?

F: Yeah. She never understood Gilda’s reasoning either.

T: Do you?

F: Can’t say that I do, no. It seems like an exercise in futility. “I’ve fallen in love with this guy, a notorious womanizer who only sees women as objects to temporarily slake his lust, and despite him doing this within earshot of me, I still love him with all my heart and will die in his stead. Even though I mean nothing to him.” If he had showed any kind of remorse, or that she was his one true love all along, that’s another thing.

T: Oh, yeah, totally. Or if Maddalena was his one true love. Then a sacrifice would make sense. “I love you, I want you to be happy with your one true love, and sadly that isn’t me, but what the hell. Live your life, my love. It’s my final gift to you.”

F: Instead it’s more like “I’ll give up my life so you can continue to be a serial womanizer, because you’re never going to change.”

T: It’s enabling him to continue more than anything.

F: Well, yeah, because he ain’t murdered and dumped in a river.

T: Oh, that was one of those confusing things too – Gilda never disguised herself as a boy in this production, so that part was a bit confusing. They’re supposed to mistake her for random young man, right? But she was still in her blue dress like before, and would the assassin really have killed a young woman just like that?

F: Some people have no qualms.

T: No, but the most casual of glances would have told anyone that it clearly wasn’t the duke they were about to yeet into a river. Wouldn’t you want to make sure it stood up to a little more scrutiny?

F: Ideally, yeah. I will agree that some of the creative choices made were puzzling.

T: I didn’t really get that they’re supposed to be a bunch of nobles either at the beginning. They’re dressed like they belong in a circus! There are Mexican wrestlers and superheroes. I swear there’s a guy in there who looks like he’s cosplaying Shazam!

F: On the other hand most of them have their names on the back of their costumes so you know who they are.

T: Yes. That was good. Weird, but good.

F: But I don’t think you could make that out from the seating are. The audience is too far away.

T: Opera glasses?

F: Sure, but who still brings those? There are a lot of details you couldn’t make out at normal visual range. Things you can only see because the cameras give you a close-up view.

T: So all they really see is the creepy clown head and some people in red dancing around below. I mean it’s a striking visual, but … seen close up it’s extremely busy. So many things to look at.

F: And so many things that move around. Constantly. The balloon in the clown’s hand turns into a hot air balloon.

T: Bit gimmicky, isn’t it?

F: Yeah. It feels like it relies a lot on gimmicks, which is a real shame because Rigoletto doesn’t need it. It stands on its own. It always has done.

T: You don’t think bouncing around two giant eyeballs on stage was missing from every other production you’ve seen?

F: I really don’t.

T: When you thought they couldn’t make the staging any creepier, they remove the eyeballs, so you have two gaping holes for people to occupy. And bounce the eyeballs around like two big inflatable beach balls. And why not remove some teeth randomly, so it looks like the clown has had its face kicked in, for good measure? And to top it off? Remove the nose and have another big hole to put people into!

F: The stuff of nightmares.

T: And a half! And people were in the mouth and stuff as it kept moving around!

F: And hanging off wires. Wires everywhere.

T: I guess that’s why they had an aerial acrobatics team. Wait, no, aerial acrobatics is what you call airplanes doing loops.

F: Are you looking for the phrase “Wired Aerial Theater”?

T: Yes. Yes, I am. People were climbing on top of the head, swinging from wires, suspended from fingers like marionettes … Like I said, busy!

F: Being tethered to a giant hand sure is a departure from sitting on top of a shipping container!

T: Oh yeah. The ones hanging from the fingers during La donna è mobile you could say breasted boobily as well, because there were loads of boobs!

F: An apt description. The height of weirdness. Like watching clusters of eggs on a lobster.

T: Unsettling to say the least. I wasn’t even sure they were supposed to be breasts at first.

F: What did you make of the Count of Mantua?

T: The arsehole?

F: … Yes.

T: He was an arsehole.

F: Well, yes, but could you elaborate?

T: A massive arsehole.

F: But a very handsome one, ah?

T: The singer wasn’t bad-looking by any means, but the character wasn’t exactly pretty on the inside, as we have established.

F: But you have heard of at least one song before, La donna è mobile?

T: It’s one of the operatic songs everyone can hum because everyone has heard it somewhere.

F: Did you know what that song was about before this?

T: Not before I looked it up maybe a year or so ago?

F: Were you surprised?

T: A bit. Didn’t expect it to be about how women are fickle and basically deserve to be cheated on because they can’t make up their minds, so who cares about fidelity anyway.

F: It really goes to show the kind of character the Count is.

T: Yes. An arsehole.

F: In one. It’s fascinating to me that they had to rehearse the aria in secret before the premiere performance back in Verdi’s time.

T: How come?

F: It’s so catchy! It became a popular song to sing as a Venetian gondolier. Perhaps not the best song to salute courting couples with, but what can you do?

T: That is quite interesting, actually.

F: And I found a quote from Igor Stravinsky about it as well.

T: The composer?

F: Far as I can tell.

T: What did he make of it?

F: He said that “there is more substance and feeling [in it] than in the whole of Wagner’s Ring cycle,” despite how “the elite thinks [it] only brilliant and superficial.”

T: Damn! Did Wagner want aloe vera for that burn?

F: Stravinsky ain’t wrong.

T: Well, I haven’t seen the Ring cycle.

F: Would you want to?

T: Kind of? As long as I can do it at home so I can pause whenever I want to.

F: Good answer.

T: You know what I don’t get about Rigoletto?

F: Spill.

T: It’s a bunch of things, actually, but okay: I don’t get why Rigoletto is kicking the Count of Ceprano at the beginning. Like, his wife was off having an affair with the Duke of Mantua, cut the guy some slack.

F: Sure. You’re forgetting how Rigoletto thinks the Duke should get rid of the Count, so he can have the Countess to himself.

T: Still iffy. Then was Rigoletto some kind of court jester to the Duke? And why was he so secretive about having a daughter? Is that explained anywhere?

F: He didn’t want her sullied by the Duke getting his mitts on her, considering he knows what the Duke is like. Gilda is a beautiful young woman, beautiful young women is what the Duke likes to have his way with.

T: Okay, but did they all live in the same building or something? The nobles all come by to abduct the Countess of Ceprano, allegedly, but they had Rigoletto’s key?

F: Uh, I think the staging didn’t help explain things here.

T: Ya think?!

F: He’s supposed to live next door to the Ceprano residence, but with an abstract staging like that it’s very unclear. I agree.

T: Right.

F: It’s also worth bearing in mind that Rigoletto is really not liked by the courtiers. He ain’t a good guy. He ain’t as bad as the Duke, or at least he ain’t bad in the same way, but he is no saint.

T: Okay, and is that related to how the other count, Monterone, curses them both?

F: In a way. The Duke had his way with Monterone’s daughter, and Rigoletto mocks him for it. Like I said, not a good guy.

T: But a curse? I mean, c’mon.

F: Italians are a superstitious people, what can I say?

T: Hmm, okay. It was set in the past too, I guess.

F: According to the Victor Hugo play it’s based on, it was originally about a French king from the 1500s or something like that.

T: Which would make more sense as to why he’d have a court jester. I didn’t know dukes generally had court jesters.

F: That’s further back in history than my expertise and interest goes, I gotta admit.

T: Yeah, same here. Sort of.

F: Verdi moved the setting to Mantua in Italy to avoid censors, but I don’t know if the French are superstitious too. What I take from the nature of your questions is that this production didn’t do a good job in introducing Rigoletto to newcomers, because these are things you shouldn’t need to ask. They should be self-explanatory.

T: One shouldn’t have to look up the plot on Wikipedia to follow what’s going on?

F: One should not, no. But over all, did you like it? Would you want to see a production of Rigoletto with a less outlandish staging?

T: Absolutely! The music was fantastic all around. I’d love to see one that’s less focused on ginormous, creepy clowns, yes sir.

F: I’ll see what I can dig up.

T: If you could find one with Joseph Calleja as the Duke, I certainly won’t object.

F: We still have the Met’s Norma for that.

T: Well, I’m a simple gal.

F: One who needs to broaden her horizons. For instance, have you seen Jonas Kaufmann in anything that ain’t a short clip?

T: No.

F: See, that’s the kind of thing we gotta rectify.

T: He does have a good voice, I have to admit.

F: And he ain’t the only one. I don’t think he’s in any of the ones we’ve got lined up, but there are other tenors out there also worth your consideration.

T: So which one should we watch and discuss next? Do we have any that aren’t Verdi or Puccini?

F: Sure I saw a Britten and another Gilbert and Sullivan in there.

T: Is this where I say “forget I asked”?

F: No, no, I did say I’m broadening my horizons too.

T: We’ll see what we’re in the mood for as and when, yeah?

F: Yeah. I would like to discuss Aida, for instance.

T: The favourite of Al Capone as well as your mother?

F: Yes. Actually, my father has always had a fondness for Rigoletto.

T: Oh? Any particular reason?

F: The protective father thing, mainly. It’s also why he likes La Traviata. Anything with a father who wants the best for his children. Anyway. Did you like the performers?

T: Very much, and I’d like to see a different production for comparison.

F: So, would you like to summarize?

T: Yes! Rigoletto has awesome music, the performers were top notch, but the abstract staging with a ginormous mechanical clown was disturbing and too visually cluttered to make any kind of sense, and it detracted from the performances. But I enjoyed how close it was to the water.

F: Sounds about right. And for now we bid you addio and say a presto!


An old school gentleman in a modern world, longing for the simplicity of days gone by. Definitely not a saint. Enjoys The Sopranos, baseball, and going to the opera. A meticulous dresser with Strong Opinions™ about Italian food. Wonders why "Fedora-wearing" is an insult, as he doesn't feel dressed without one.

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