Opera review Rigoletto meets Lear in a New Romantic take on Verdi
Rigoletto Royal Opera House, London ★★★★☆
With full audiences for the first time since March 2020, the Royal Opera opens its season with a new Rigoletto, conducted by Antonio Pappano and directed by Oliver Mears, his first at Covent Garden since joining as director of opera in 2017.
It’s a powerful piece of theatre, strong on Shakespearean resonances and irony: we’re reminded that Rigoletto is the closest we get to the King Lear that Verdi always said he wanted to write but never did. Mears’s Mantua is a place of sandstone walls and louring grey skies, where opulence and squalor exist side by side.
Ilona Karas’s costumes suggest the 1980s, and the ducal court, got up in New Romantic velvet, leather and braid, contrasts with city lowlife in denim and grunge.
Liparit Avetisyan’s handsome, vicious Duke collects art as well as women, at one point unveiling Titian’s Venus of Urbino for his guests, while a tattered print of a Madonna is the sole decoration in Gilda’s (Lisette Oropesa) austere bedroom.
This is a society tacitly united by misogyny and violence, with which Carlos Álvarez’s Rigoletto is at once dangerously complicit and supremely mistrustful. Women are literally lined up for the Duke’s pleasure at his party, while the men move in aggressive, stylised unison. Ramona Zaharia’s Maddalena, treated abusively by Brindley Sherratt’s Sparafucile, can only face a client when drunk.
Occasionally, Mears misjudges the tone. In a gesture towards Shakespeare’s blinding of Gloucester, the Duke exultantly gouges out the eyes of Eric Greene’s Monterone, which is totally at odds with the score. And the simulated sex between the Duke and Maddalena distracts us from the more important scene between Rigoletto and Sparafucile occurring below.
It all sounds terrific, though. Álvarez’s voice may have lost some of its lustre of late, but his interpretation, by turns tender, obsessive and strikingly bitter, is utterly compelling. Oropesa makes a matchless Gilda, singing with extraordinary beauty of tone and understated depth of feeling: this really is one of the truly great performances. Though occasionally ill at ease with Mears’s view of the Duke as a sadist, Avetisyan brings real seductive poetry in ways that are beguiling. Pappano, meanwhile, lets the score unfold with measured intensity and sensual yet baleful beauty.
In rep until 12 March