OPERA / The Duke of haphazard: Edward Seckerson reviews Rigoletto and Ariadne on Naxos at the Coliseum

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The Independent Culture
HAS IT really been 10 years? Is this really the end of the road for the mafioso Rigoletto? English National Opera is insisting that it is, that a contract is out on it, that Jonathan Miller's spunky staging has had its day. But when box-office receipts are tantamount to offers you can't refuse, it's amazing how some productions simply refuse to lie down. Last Thursday, the hoods, the hit-men of New York's 'Little Italy' officially opened ENO's new season; the 'Duke' was still pushing dimes into the juke box; mafioso melodrama was once more a pair of dark glasses and a 38-calibre.

But all was not well at the heart of this latest, and last, revival, Outside of his big fist-shaking moments, his howls for retribution, John Rawnsley's celebrated hunchback barman seemed listless, uneasy. This was never a subtle performance; but its coarseness was somehow part of its honesty, and it was always gloriously sung - not much finesse but bags of heart. This time round, Rawnsley wasn't filling phrases: the caressing legatos just weren't happening, phrasing was awkward, erratic. We were left with a series of crowd-pleasing histrionics but little to support and motivate them.

Cathryn Pope's Gilda, her first at ENO, was none too happy either. Quite apart from numerous accidents - pitch and otherwise - the top of her voice (always a strength) sounded short and troubled, seriously lacking in focus and freedom, the coloratura tense and strenuous. Far from floating through the palpitating ecstasies of her big Act 1 aria, she appeared harassed by its technical difficulties. I, too, have rarely been so aware of them.

Not so in the case of Arthur Davies' kiss-curled 'Duke', though heaven knows this is the mother of all Verdi's lyric tenor roles and occasionally even Davies' energy and experience weren't quite enough. There were sterling newcomers in Michael Druiett's Sparafucile and Patricia Bardon's Maddalena - but the evening belonged to the ENO Chorus: vigorous, incisive, each and every one of them a character. Conductor Michael Lloyd was good and solid at the helm, whipping up quite a squall in Act 3 as the garbage blew evocatively across Patricia Robertson's louring Edward Hopper-inspired set. Will this last act ever be quite so credible again?

All-change the following night as 'the richest man in Vienna' once more hosted valiant attempts to revive Ariadne on Naxos - the opera within Strauss's opera. A monstrously periwigged Donald Sinden returned to supervise the preparations, his booming, supercilious Major-Domo rolling the syllables around his ample jowls in gleeful contempt of low-life 'theatricals'. Follow that. It was hard to. Graham Vick's production (revived here by Lynn Binstock) is still at its best in conveying the Prologue's farcical collisions of bodies and egos. The 'Opera' is neither tacky enough to be convincingly 'homespun' nor imaginative enough to be transcendental.

What have we really just seen? On this occasion, an energetic cast put spiritedly through its paces by a conductor, Vienna- born Alexander Sander, who plainly knows a thing or two about the stylistic mix of the piece. Vocal style was lacking. Rita Cullis was again good value as 'The Composer', full and ardent. Would that Janice Cairns' Ariadne could have shared her vocal warmth. She shaped some affecting phrases but her music was constantly at odds with the sound of her voice. Alan Woodrow's Bacchus, too, had the notes but not the timbre. And so Zerbinetta was once again show-stealer as well as scene-stealer. Cyndia Sieden began her big aria approximately (there's not cheating this music), but she was soon dizzy with the coloratura. 'I was stunned', she said of her amorous adventures. She sounded it.

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(Photograph omitted)

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