When he is good, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle brings the illumination of an extraordinarily bold and inventive mind to opera, on the stage and on the screen. When he is bad, he is perverse.
In "Rigoletto," which PBS will telecast as part of the wishfully titled "Great Performances" series tonight, he isn't just perverse. He also is fussy, unintentionally funny, mannered, silly, self-indulgent and inimical to Verdi.
He turns a poignant, elemental music drama into an uneasy fusion of operatic ritual, psychological pretense and mock-gothic horror story. The result resembles a noisy ersatz-Fellini extravaganza masquerading somehow as a Technicolored "Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." (The incredulous can watch it at 8 p.m. on Channel 24; at 9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15 and 9:15 p.m. on Channel 50.)
The basic premise is similar to that of Ponnelle's San Francisco production of "Rigoletto," first seen in 1973. During the prelude, the tragic jester grieves over the corpse of his daughter. Then the opera unfolds as a flashback, as Rigoletto's nightmare.
The nightmare perspective presumably justifies the inherent distortions. Rigoletto apparently sees the courtiers as mocking monsters, the Duke of Mantua as a boorish beast, the palace revelry as debaucherie worthy of "The Satyricon."
This makes a certain amount of dramatic sense, and, so long as the director keeps his visual license in check, it does little harm to Verdi. But when the excessive grotesquerie both contradicts and overpowers the music, we know something is wrong.
Ponnelle has gone to great pains to film this "Rigoletto" on location. He makes picturesque use of Northern Italian Renaissance sites: the Teatro Farnese, the Palazzo Te, the Teatro Olimpico in Sabbioneta. It all looks nice, and, for all its historic authenticity, it all looks stilted and patently artificial. A good set designer might have served him better.
In the final analysis, however, the settings matter little. This, after all, is a "Rigoletto" in which the humongous Duke--none other than Luciano Pavarotti--stuffs his face, cackles a lot and pops his eyes at great, big Bacchanales.
This is a "Rigoletto" in which the hunchbacked jester--Ingvar Wixell--gets down on all fours to serve as a humping bed upon which his boss ravishes Monterone's daughter. This is a "Rigoletto" in which the jester carries a stick-doll bearing his own likeness and, even more significant, a "Rigoletto" in which the jester can curse himself. After all, the ever-clever Ponnelle makes Rigoletto and Monterone one and the same person.
This also is a "Rigoletto" fraught with fraught-with-meaning close-ups. Ponnelle likes to dwell on the knowing glances of a dwarf in the crowd. He likes to dabble in gimmickry too. At the end of the second scene, for instance, he makes Rigoletto dangle in distress from Gilda's balcony as if the protagonist were just another pathetic puppet. There isn't much room here for subtlety.
Nor is there much concern for credibility. Wixell catches and tosses the slender sack presumably containing Pavarotti's body as if it weighed little more than a few potatoes. Given the tenor's bulk, that should give one pause.
The plump and pretty Gilda--Edita Gruberova--is made up to look like the pallid ghost of Christmas past. The evil Sparafucile--Ferruccio Furlanetto--emerges here as the perfect comic-opera villain, nasty smirk, blacked-out teeth and all. And so it goes.
Pavarotti holds his high notes for tasteless eternities, mugs outrageously, swaggers embarrassingly and occasionally sings like the great tenor the hypesters insist he is.
Wixell stresses the stupid rather than the noble side of Rigoletto's character, and his once-noble baritone sounds woefully threadbare. Gruberova, unaccompanied by Wixell, ascends to a blood-curdling, interpolated shriek at the end of "Si, vendetta," but otherwise sings sweetly and virtuosically. Furlanetto emits a lot of nice, dark grumbles.
Most interesting, perhaps, are the mezzo-sopranos. Victoria Vergara introduces a genuinely seductive Maddalena, and Fedora Barbieri, a veteran of many Verdi wars, makes a nice and nasty cameo appearance as Gilda's now-corrupt nurse.
Most confusing is the minor character of Marullo, who seems to be sung by the major baritone Bernd Weikl but acted by the minor baritone Louis Otey.
Riccardo Chailly conducts forces of the Vienna Opera with primitive abandon.