Rigoletto Prelude -- A conversation with Louis Burkot, Artistic Director and
Helena Binder, Stage Director for Rigoletto Summerfest 2020
Louis Burkot (LB): Helena and I wanted to share a conversation, working together with Verdi again.
Helena Binder (HB): I’m really delighted to be working with you, Maestro, It’s always fun to talk about the opera canon in general. Verdi is following in the footsteps of the great opera composers Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, but opera seemed to take a big step forward with Verdi. Would you talk about some of the ways Verdi changed opera?
LB: With Verdi, we’re encountering a culture where the human voice has reached supremacy as a virtuosic display. Many opera singers had cult followings, like rock stars. They were head and shoulders above anything else. The orchestra and the plot were not less important, it’s just that the human voice became an emotional vehicle. Verdi was attracted for that that style of opera. There had been the recitative aria, a predictable format, but Verdi quickly grew tired of that and started working closely with his librettist, Pica. Macbeth and Rigoletto both had verses so tight and well-structured because of Piave.
HB: Yes. With Macbeth, for example, it was important to Verdi that the opera stick to Shakespeare’s story.
LB: He brought the play and the libretto in – with Piave. When Piave worked with other composers, it was often a disaster but with Verdi he worked so hard to that the true genius shines through. For example with Barber you may remember that Verdi was incomparable in setting party music. But not all parties are alike. In Rigoletto, the plot is quite scandalous. (The audience may recognize parallels with people prominent in our lives.) The story came from Victor Hugo – about a king who is a buffoon, a licentious philistine who used his political statue to seduce, without any feeling for the tradition of marriage. Verdi and Piave got around the censorship of the time by making the king the “Duke of Mantua.”
As you listen to the music of the party, the asymmetry seems odd, While Boursa is describing his latest conquest, Verdi constructs the scene with a new addition to opera. As Boursa sings “this very night will finish the adventure,” I like to keep the tempo of the aria elegant but faster, showing insistence and defiance of tradition. Without this scene, you have the sweetness of a minuet. But then his confident voice takes on a dazzling quality. It’s a frivolous party but Verdi’s funky phrasing underscores the conversation with Boursa.
HB: While all this going on, there are tons of people on the stage. Like the banquet scene in Macbeth, where there’s a side dialogue and you have to shift the audience’s focus. Staging really helps the audience know where to look. You use the lighting and the positioning so the eye goes there.
Sometimes you can use the most dramatic, unrealistic staging to do that. In Barber, people “freeze” in the moment while the side dialogue goes on to the audience, breaking the Fourth Wall. Verdi would never have bought into that. But it’s so interesting that his music is almost cinematic. The composition does a camera closeup: it’s Verdi as filmmaker.
LB: Another interesting element of the composing is the development of the character of the hunchback and his situation as court jester – when he does not know that the woman he loves is the Duke’s daughter. Her aria consists of variations on one melody. The harmony has to be so simple. The variation is critical. This is one of those situations where the conductor has to step in and keep the singer from straying into the dramatic. It defeats the whole purpose of the variation if you don’t stay in tempo. You can’t let the whole world come to an end.
Verdi is a master of taking harmonies to give a feeling that you’re going somewhere you’ve never been before; but then he brings you back. In the traditions Rossini used, every aria ends on a high note. With Verdi, when you’re expecting the cadenza to end, instead you don’t know where the music is going. To me, that’s brilliant. Suddenly you move away and then you’re quickly back. Verdi’s ending is very different.
HB: What makes Rigoletto so appealing? People are always telling me, “Oh, that’s my favorite.”
LB: Verdi was able to take characters. They seemed to have less dimension [with others] than when he writes them. He even gives the Duke a soft spot for his daughter Gilda. In the third act, you have one musical idea from start to finish. You can tell this is not going to end well but Verdi holds your attention. There are no set pieces. Everything is very economical and focused. Verdi keeps the drama moving in an efficient way.
HB Let’s talk a little about how we prepare the score for a modern audience. I call it the MTV world. We put a premium on naturalistic productions, moving closer to real time. There’s no singing just for the gratuitous beauty of it. Even when it is beautiful. There has to be a music al integrity at work, not just the skill of the singer. But I do make a lot of cuts.
HB: One of the things I consider when preparing a production is how long the audience can sit in the theater now. And what propels the story forward. You and I make cuts in the score and then discuss then. They’re almost surgical in nature. The music needs to make sense musically; but it also needs to make sense dramatically. It’s almost like sculpting the opera for the audience.
LB: When Verdi was writing, a lot of the music was used to move people from one space to another. We have a different, small space, which means the repetition is not necessary. Verdi likes to ‘go away and come back’ sometimes and that’s not necessary when you’re trying to economize.
HB: Sometimes when we’ve gone through trimming, we put things back. In Macbeth we restored enough to help me create the scene. You have to craft the entire theatrical experience, and move the audience along in the story in an efficient way. It’s like a good sculptor, who knows what to take away and what to live in.
LB: I’m glad we made that decision. Working with the stage director, the set designer and lighting, it’s so important to have more people presenting a unified vision. The singers are more comfortable in realizing the vision.
HB: When they see we’re in concert and understand we really do have a vision to guide them. Because we collaborate, they feel confident.
Q. How does the set design process work?
HB: I have an idea of how I want to tell the story and then I have a discussion with the scenic designer. I’ve worked from no more than a picture, then we storyboard every scene. A good scenic designer of opera listens to the music. We come up with a plan for the vision. The venue influences a lot.
Tony Cisek was very clever with Macbeth to have the scenic element come forward as Evans wanted. With the orchestra on the stage, at stage left, he had the set come to a point stage right. That was remarkably clever and insightful. In the case of Macbeth, we were very conscious of the venue (Lebanon Opera House.)
Q. Why is the storm scene in Rigoletto so important?
LB:. The storm scene is a very musical realization. At first it’s hard to tell that the instrumentation is actually a male chorus that ties every scene together. The third act contains some of the plainest – and most complicated—music. There’s an almost Baroque theme with an inner voice dissonance. Then La Donna e Mobile with two musical events at the same time in one place, used in a very theatrical way.
HB: And then the irony of the dark realization of whose body is in the bag makes it spectacular. I think why people love it is the surprises.
Q. You mentioned the repetition was used to get the singers from one space to another. Would Verdi approve cutting that?
LB: Verdi was the first opera composer whose works were performed worldwide, without him there; so I’m sure it was done. People in the theater are very practical, although the singers probably had something to say, too. Looking at the scores you often see big slashes from where major productions have cut things out. The music from this period is cuttable. Othello, Puccini are not. And of course you never cut important narrative. You don’t cut text.
Well, Helena and I love sharing these insights with you; and we look forward to continuing this course with Opera North.