Money doesn’t buy everything, but it can buy you an opera ticket, and when Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto was staged six times as part of Ankara State Opera’s 2013–14 season, I was there to see all six performances. Opera critics in Turkey are expected to be graduates of the conservatory and to be constructive in their criticism. I beg to disagree. As an opera fan, you should say what you feel. And anyway, besides the music, there’s the decor, the costumes, the characters and the staging itself to discuss.
Rigoletto is based on a Victor Hugo play, Le roi s’amuse, written in 1832, with an Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. The Austrian Habsburg censors, then in control of northern-Italian theatres, insisted on the changing of places and names before it could be premiered at La Fenice in Venice in 1851.
Ankara’s opera house dates back to the 1930s and the early years of the new Republic, and Rigoletto was first staged here in 1950. As a child I remember seeing traditional performances set in the 16th century. The Act 3 aria ‘La dona e mobile’ was sung in Turkish as ‘Women are fickle’. Ankara’s recent production, sung in the original Italian, offers a surtitle with the more appropriate translation: ‘Women are variable’.
A production I saw in Hamburg in 2010, again set in 16th-century Mantua, was performed without intervals over a full two hours. The audience was exhausted by the end, and heaven knows how the singers survived.
In the plot, the womanising Duca di Mantova seduces the daughter of the Conte di Monerone. When Rigoletto (traditionally portrayed as the Duke’s hunch-backed court jester), makes fun of the Conte, Monterone curses him. Rigoletto’s own daughter, Gilda, is then abducted and seduced by the Duke. To exact revenge for his daughter's shame, the jester hires a contract killer – Sparafucile – to kill him. The tragic finale is agonising.
I have listened to the opera on CD at home and at work many, many times and I love the melodies of Verdi’s opera from start to finish. You can see a beautiful clip on YouTube filmed in Mantua itself with Placido Domingo as Rigoletto. Pavarotti’s Duke at the Vienna State Opera was also extravagant, sumptuous, extraordinary. In 1982 London’s ENO chose a New York Mafia setting, while Welsh National Opera adapted it to the Oval Office for their adaptation – though the Kennedy-style Duke was overly flirtatious. The New York Met, in their 2012 production, set the opera in 1960s Las Vegas, with the Duke as a Sinatra figure, the countess as Marilyn Monroe and Rigoletto as a nightclub bartender.
In the recent Ankara staging Rigoletto is neither a hunchback nor a jester. Under Yekta Kara’s direction, we find ourselves in Mafia-controlled Naples in 1924. She peoples the stage with beautiful women, a chorus of 40 or so Mafiosi, and the Duke as their Godfather figure. To be honest the size of the chorus seemed excessive – usually there are no more than 20 – and the volume was so overpowering that those in the front seats must have been deafened.
With different singers taking the leading roles for each of the three performances, I wanted to see them all. The baritone Eralp Kıyıcı, as Rigoletto, sang beautifully as usual, though he gave the impression he was still in 16th-century Mantua, rather than 1924 Naples. Maybe he couldn’t escape the more traditional characterisation he had grown used to in his many previous performances. Çetin Kıranbay’s more modern Rigoletto had a great Al Pacino look.
Three gorgeous sopranos starred as Gilda – Çiğdem Önol, Görkem Ezgi Yıldırım and Esra Çetiner. Çiğdem Önal has a great voice and is very experienced, but I did wonder if she had warmed up properly beforehand. In the first act, her voice seemed weak and we overheard the director’s frantic and angry reaction from her supposedly soundproof cubicle. However, she found her true melodic tone later. The extraordinary Görkem Ezgi Yıldırım is a newcomer, and her youth, physique and soft melodic sound were all very appropriate in the role of the innocent young Gilda. The last soprano, Esra Çetiner, another new talent, was also excellent. Görkem and Esra are still young, and both were superb. We hope to see them soon on the great opera stages of the world.
The role of the Duke was taken by İhsan Ekbar, Şenol Talınlı and Murat Karahan, all tenors with strong, lyrical, manly voices. However, they should avoid physical contact with the girls in order to emphasise their charm and flirtatiousness. Ekbar lost his voice in the last act, but recovered. In my opinion Murat Karahan was the best, with just the right appearance, voice and youthful, flirtatious manners. But singing ‘La dona e mobile’ sitting on a chair, with feet on a table, is not acceptable, for the body cannot produce sound properly and the voice chokes.
In the second and third acts, the engine noise from the platforms interfered with the orchestra’s playing, and that should be avoided. It is also asking a lot of singers in leading roles to climb three floors of scaffolding before launching into an aria. It is simply too tiring.
In the final act we had a new twist to the plot, with Rigoletto commiting suicide. Overcome at the loss of his daughter, he shoots himself – after which the opera house resounds to the final mighty bars from the orchestra. This is new, but is it correct? Who can say. In a traditional staging, I would expect Rigoletto to take his revenge, and then live with his suffering.
In the smaller roles, we had Güzin Yıldız, Meltem Gençtürk and Sinem Mustafaoğlu as the Contessa di Ceprano, with Yetişer Ferda, Oylun Erda, Sebnem Algın in the enticing role of Maddalena. As the assassin Sparafucile, Tuncay Kurtoğlu, Sabri Karabudak and Can Kocaay were exceptionally good. I love opera villains, but it is difficult to pitch that bad-guy role just right. I congratulate each one of them.
The Mafia chorus was strong from start to finish, and the conductors, Rengin Gökmen (first and second nights) and Alessandro Cedrano were extraordinarily accomplished. Ankara’s Rigoletto was a world-class staging and attracted a full house on all three nights, with many audience members standing at the sides.
Rigoletto was repeated on stage at the Aspendos Opera Festival in Antalya on June 15, 2013, also at the Istanbul Opera Festival in July 2013. We hope to see it in Ankara again next season.
For information about opera and ballet in Turkey, visit the State Opera and Ballet (DOB) website. The Istanbul opera festival this year is June 3–17. The programme can be viewed here when it is announced.