CLASSICAL MUSIC / Miller's mafiosi can still call the shots

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The Independent Culture
BACK 'by popular demand', protested ENO's advance publicity of the production it said would never be revived again. Jonathan Miller's Rigoletto is obviously going to be resurrected season after season, invariably by popular demand. And while ENO might have found a fresher work to open the '92/3 season on Thursday, it could hardly have found one with a more devoted following. This Rigoletto has the cult potential of an old film where the audience knows every nuance and itches to concelebrate it like a piece of liturgy. When the Duke (Arthur Davies, again) hits the juke box (a joke) in Act III and out rolls 'La donna e mobile', the house erupts with grunts of recognition and conspiratorial exchanges: 'This is the bit we saw on TV, darling.'

But watch closely, listen hard and you find that this is an inspired example of modern stagecraft, deserving of its reputation. The parallels it draws between the 16th-century court at Mantua and the 20th-century court of a Manhattan mafia boss, between Dukes and Dooks (and even jukes) are not gratuitous. They are instructive, neat and sharply realised. The cast appears in lounge suits stuffed with sawn-off shotguns, but it isn't camp; it's beautifully thought through, with an attention to detail that soaks up the implausibilities of the libretto.

The problem with this umpteenth revival is that so much of the energy is decanted into the orchestra which plays superbly under Michael Lloyd. John Rawnsley has made a career of the title role, but looks/sounds as though he's coming to the end of it: there are critical points - the dismissal of the courtiers in Act II, the discovery of Gilda in the sack - where he lacks the old authority and intensity. And all the principals make hard work of their music. Even Cathryn Pope's new Gilda is strong but effortful. But it's still a good show, and you feel the singers trying to live up to it. The struggle, sometimes, is too obvious; but popular demand carries a heavy burden of responsibility.

The second opera in ENO's new season is also a revival: the Ariadne on Naxos which, in 1983, established director Graham Vick's genius for eye-catching economy. Few ENO productions can cost less than this, with its simple sets (Russell Craig) that blur the boundaries between the piece's two levels of theatre, the prologue and the play-within-the-play, and make it all the stuff that dreams are made of - carried through in a clean sweep that releases the action from terrestrial anchorage then snuffs it out, when the dream is done, leaving an empty stage.

It's a brilliant idea - not, alas, brilliantly revived (by other hands) here, where the performances aren't particularly vital; but Ariadne is a hard piece to cast, as music let alone as theatre. As Strauss's most sublime score, it needs great voices; and although ENO does well by Rita Cullis (the Composer) and Janice Cairns (Ariadne) it's not enough. Alan Woodrow's Bacchus has no helden resonance; and Alexander Sander, an incoming Viennese conductor, makes no impact. The consolation is Zerbinetta: an American soprano, Cyndia Sieden, with a fine light coloratura (effortlessly up to top F) but light on personality too. Donald Sinden's hammily non-singing Major-Domo acts everyone offstage. I'm not sure that's what Strauss envisaged.

'Rigoletto' continues at the Coliseum (071-836 3161) on Wed and Fri; 'Ariadne' on Thurs and Sat.