Sad Sack Rigoletto Lurches Into Mantua With Domingo: TV Review

Placido Domingo
Placido Domingo as Rigoletto in "Rigoletto from Mantua" which airs tonight on PBS. Photographer: Cristiano Giglioli/Thirteen via Bloomberg

Poor Mantua: a perfectly noble Renaissance duchy forever associated with a licentious duke and a homicidal hunchback.

The north-Italian town looks great in tonight’s airing on PBS of Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” a music drama first heard in Venice in 1851.

Especially the palazzo ducale makes a fine impression. Built over many centuries, the sprawling complex ended up containing 500 rooms, including a dreamy bridal chamber decorated with cupids and a large bird looking down from the heavens.

I would happily have lingered in the palazzo and skipped some of the singing.

The esteemed tenor, Placido Domingo, for instance, who glowers under that extravagantly folded funny hat ... What’s he doing singing Rigoletto, anyway?

This is a role for a big-voiced baritone, not an aging if admirable tenor, now officially 70, whose top has lost range and luster.

When we wrote nicely two seasons ago of his Simone Boccanegra, whose wistfulness he expressed in silvery tones at the Metropolitan Opera, it was not to encourage yet more pillaging of the baritone repertoire.

Sad Sack

In the famous scene in which Rigoletto hurls invective at the duke’s snide courtiers, Domingo sounds underpowered and tired, though he rallies when he comes upon daughter Gilda dying in a sack near the waterfront.

Her way there makes for wonderful viewing. The grand camerawork of a huge and remarkably coordinated team, led by Academy Award-winning Vittorio Storaro, takes us right into a moodily lit Palazzo del Te. After that, as day turns to night, we follow the hunchback into his rather fancy domicile.

That’s a real nice tondo on the wall, Rigo!

Not that Domingo has the acting range to suggest the jester’s deformity. He seems to have slightly poor posture, and not a career-defining hump.

As the duke, a role once sung by Domingo, Vittorio Grigolo shows off a lively, light, slightly tight tenor and the swagger of an appropriately handsome man. Julia Novikova seems destined for bigger roles than Gilda. Ruggero Raimondi musters fading powers for Sparafucile, the casual assassin.

Zubin Mehta sternly commands the orchestra, which plays in the Teatro Scientifico Bibiena, far from the singers. In mysterious ways that involve lots of monitors, assistant directors and clever engineers, the show was filmed live by RAI last year.

It’s an amazing achievement from the same producers who did a live “Tosca” in Rome two decades ago. I can only assume that Domingo is being wooed to sing bass Boris soon at the Kremlin.

“Rigoletto” airs on PBS at 9:30 p.m. New York time as part of the Great Performances series. Information:

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and culture section. Any opinions are her own.)

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