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22 August 2014
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Far too good just for the kids...
by Neil McGowan

Alexander Aksenov as Rigoletto

Rigoletto - an operatic séance*
Ex-Prompt Theatre for Children, Moscow
1 October 2004

* in Russian, a "séance" can be both a showing in a theatre or cinema, or a summoning of spirits.

Forget that it's a "children's theatre". Forget that there's a band of just five players, and a chorus of three. Forget that the stage is 10 metres wide, and you can't enter from stage left - except by walking through the audience. By any standards, this is a revelatory Rigoletto - staged by Ex-Prompt staff director Natal'ya Timofeeva, and in-house music director Igor Sukachev. For catching the tension, the jealousies, the hatred, and the love in Hugo's plot, this production can match any other you might have seen - and outstrip many more.

Yes, of course, it is heavily cut, and runs for just 80 minutes - with a young audience in mind. The lights come up on "Dr Spara", a hokum spiritualist, obsessively listening to Gigli singing "La Donna e' Mobile" - until an unexpected client steps in out of the rain. Visibly disturbed and possibly deranged, the man is seeking contact with his lost daughter Gilda. Is she his daughter in this life - or some previous life? "For the right money, anything can be arranged" assures Maddalena - Spara's housekeeper and assistant. The séance begins…

Rigoletto is dogged by ill fate, in the person of a silent malevolent Jester (Larissa Vinzhegina) who follows him throughout the performance. His philandering boss, Duke, is soon making his life even more miserable… and thereafter, the story largely follows the traditional plot, from "Questa o' quella" onwards (entirely in Russian translation), with Boris Boreiko producing a fine lyrical sound as Duke.


Alexander Aksenov as Rigoletto
Mikhail Gul'dan as Sparafucile

The arrangement (for violin, viola, cello, flute, and electronic keyboard) is the neatest piece of work imaginable - made and sparkily conducted by Igor Sukachev, with an impeccable Verdian style. Despite the unfamiliar line-up, your ears quickly accept this entirely workable accompaniment to the stage action. Quite a lot of the action goes over into dialogue, and some of the roles are "sung" by non-singers - but rather than attempting to "sing" them, they wisely go for a declamatory style which adds bite to Monterone's curse. Larissa Pavlova, however, needed no fakery to sing a super and uncut version of Caro nome (and with the top Eb). Mikhail Gul'dan makes a frightening Spara/Sparafucile, although his dark baritone sits uneasily for this bass role.

The most impressive singing, however, comes from Alexander Aksenov in the title role - one of the most moving performances of the cursed jester you might see in Moscow. His finely judged world-weariness is tinged with melancholy - his desire for revenge arises naturally from the developments of the plot. As the noose of his cursed fate slips ever-tighter around him, the Jester follows him ever-closer… and by Act III (of the original) the Jester has become his "hump", riding on his back and weighing him down, and rendering him even more unable to alter his destiny. This extraordinary coup-de-theatre by Timofeeva is amazingly successful in its realisation, and is followed through to the final moments of Gilda's death… following which we find Rigoletto again at Dr Spara's door in the rain, seeking to find his lost daughter Gilda…

It not only succeeds on an adult level, but also held a largely junior audience spellbound once they'd acclimatised to the medium. As a children's show it's marvellous - but this is far too good to keep only for kids.

Rigoletto is showing at Ex-Prompt during October and November, featuring mainly the cast reviewed above. Aksenov plays the title role in all scheduled performances. Suitable for children 10+. Children too young for Rigoletto may enjoy other productions by Natal'ya Timofeeva- Olovyanny Soldatik (The Little Tin Soldier) with music by Grieg, or Ali-Baba and the Four (!) Thieves.

Neil McGowan © 2004

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