Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Rigoletto on Film: I

 We choose Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, staged by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (1932-1988), as the first entry of our new format ( Rigoletto was the sixteenth of Verdi’s twenty-eight operas, and the first of the extraordinary trio (together with Il Trovatore and La Traviata) composed between 1851-1853. The opera was wildly successful at its Venice premiere and has been a fixture of the core repertoire of the world’s lyric stages ever since.

 Ponnelle was among the most inventive and successful director/designers of his generation. He worked extensively in Europe and in the United States, leaving a rich legacy of opera on television and film much of which is available for purchase as DVDs and accessible for streaming on xxYoutube. His stunning cinematic adaptations also include Madama Butterfly and Le Nozze di Figaro.

The question raised most urgently by our subject is this: How and to what effect does the experience of opera on film, or better, opera as cinema, that is freed from the constraints of the proscenium, differ from that of opera viewed and heard in the opera house or, indeed, in the movie house during a live telecast? Cinema’s camera movement and the processes of studio editing focus and refocus our gaze to a far greater degree than can lighting and direction for the stage or the movement afforded stage-bound television cameras.

Two elements of cinema privileged in its powerful vocabulary begin to answer the question: cinema’s ability to effect radical as well as subtle shifts in point of view both through camera distance and angle and through editing; its capacity to shoot both natural and built environments. These devices, mediated by the masterful hand of Ponnelle, further the suspension of disbelief. They conspire to counter the artifices of sung dialogue, of stage sets, and of the compression of a breathless narrative that unfolds in what appears to be a matter of days. Camera movement and editing prevail in many scenes, most emphatically in this nine-minute Act 2 sequence that captures the complexity of Rigoletto’s being.

 In this clip, Rigoletto swings from despair at the disappearance of his daughter, to rage at the courtiers who tricked him into abetting her abduction, to contrition as he pleads for her return, to horror on discovering that she has been raped by his master, the Duke of Mantua. The musical and dramatic gestures, thrilling hurdles for the baritone (here the excellent singer/actor Ingvar Wixell), find their reflection in Ponnelle’s visual gestures. The tragic figure of the court jester as he staggers across the curved balcony is intercut with shots of the courtiers who stare from below. Roving cameras catch the action in the foreground without losing sight of the elaborate architecture of the background, the late 16th-century Teatro all’Antica of the northern Italian town of Sabbioneta. At the very moment Rigoletto grasps that his beloved Gilda has been deposited in the Duke’s chambers, that the trap has succeeded, he is himself trapped by the camera against an unyielding wall. Shot and counter-shot of the Duke’s curtained bed and Rigoletto’s fury conspire with the music and libretto to tell the painful tale. Then, in a shot of prolonged duration, Rigoletto, proceeding on his knees from courtier to courtier, begs for their pity. The bed curtains part to reveal the Duke’s brazen leer in shocking closeup. The image of Gilda, face down on the bed, unleashes her father’s wrath, now laced with shame. That same image excites the courtiers’ obscene curiosity. In the end, the series of angle/reverse angle shots positions Rigoletto as dominant. He dispatches his tormentors who exit in a mocking dance.

In our next post, again devoted to the Verdi/Ponnelle Rigoletto, we will look closely at the film’s climax for the effect of location shooting on the experience of the operaphile at the movies.


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