The Daily Telegraph
Thrilling music, eccentric moves and a truly grotesque doll
Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London WC2
Opera is back. The cheers were long and loud, doubtless out of sheer relief that the Royal Opera was live on stage. For its first new production of the season, the company chose to replace David Mcvicar’s hyperactive 2001 staging of Verdi’s Rigoletto with the debut production by the house’s director of opera, Oliver Mears.
The contrast could hardly be stronger. Connoisseurs of the varying degrees of debauchery displayed in Mcvicar’s opening scene over the years may be underwhelmed by the static tableau of Mears’s opening – an allusion to the innocent slaughter in The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio – which is soon swept away by a dominating reproduction of the sensual Titian Venus of Urbino, the motto theme of the Duke of Mantua’s libertarian court.
The flashes of pictorial animation provide the only lift in Simon Lima Holdsworth’s gloomy, ascetic sets and Ilona Karas’s mixed-period costumes. Venus is then echoed by the sight of the virginal Gilda, whom her court-jester father Rigoletto keeps isolated and protected in her upper room, and by a grotesque doll left behind when she is abducted. As the Duke’s thoughts darken, the image shifts to Titian’s The Rape of Europa. His amorous adventures turn elsewhere, and it is Gilda who is herself killed in the final tragedy.
Mears’s production tells the dismal story clearly: the temptation to turn this tale of a libertine duke into a morality play for the Metoo age must have been considerable, but he aims for something more universal. It feels like a work-in-progress, maybe not surprisingly given the rehearsal conditions, and is so far without all the necessary tension and impact. This is not helped by the static chorus, prone to hunt as a pack in Anna Morrissey’s eccentric choreographic movements, rather than as individuals.
The thrills are, however, to be heard in the music. Driving Verdi’s middleperiod masterpiece forward, Antonio Pappano is in total command of his forces, and elicits vivid commentary from his orchestra: the scuttering strings underpinning Rigoletto in act two, the flutes etching in the colours of Gilda’s aria.
There is no doubt where the vocal triumph of the evening lies. This is Lisette Oropesa’s first Gilda on a British stage: girlish and unaffected, it is a wonderfully complete piece of singing, her “Caro nome” precise and emotional in every detail.
She is matched in fervour by Carlos Álvarez as her suffering, bitter father, a truly tragic figure with only the remains of a jester about him. His grainy, powerful baritone totally matches the intensity of this role, and it is the depth of his duets with his daughter that strike home. Liparit
Avetisyan’s bumptious Duke of Mantua does not exactly breathe charisma, but his rhythms are crisp and buoyant.
Operatic acting has been transformed over the years, and there are some vivid portrayals here: indeed we may think Ramona Zaharia’s voluptuous Maddalena, who proves to Gilda the Duke’s faithlessness, somewhat over-vivid; the grisly assassin of Brindley Sherratt’s superb Sparafucile outdoes Eric Greene’s Monterone in stentorian splendour.
Verdi’s story is profoundly suited to our age because it is about a reversal of conventional power: he gives his Duke all the best tunes to show his allure, but veils them in irony and shows his moral emptiness, while revealing the lowly Rigoletto’s deep humanity and warmth. Some of this subtlety is not yet caught in Mears’s staging; those Old Master references, while visually striking, aren’t fully exploited. Even so, future tweaks, performances and cast changes should mould this Rigoletto into a production that lasts.