Giuseppe Verdi, libretto Francesco Maria Piave
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The Ducal court Credit: Ellie Kurttz
Lisette Oropesa (Gilda) and Carlos Álvarez (Rigoletto) Credit: Ellie Kurttz
Courtiers Credit: Ellie Kurttz
Carlos Álvarez (Rigoletto) and Liparit Avetisyan (Duke) Credit: Ellie Kurttz

It’s easy to overlook, hearing a celebrity tenor perform "Questa o quella" in concert with devil-may-care abandon, just what a nasty piece of work the duke really is, and what a degenerate court he rules over. No mistake here, though.

Verdi’s censors originally complained of the piece’s "repellent immorality." The composer’s point was to contrast the sins of the privileged with the innocence of their victims and this powerful, gripping production by Oliver Mears, his first after joining The Royal Opera in 2017, rams the point home.

The piece is transposed to a vaguely modern period with Rabelaisian overtones. Liparit Avetisyan’s Duke of Mantua is a wealthy collector of art, mostly of the semi-erotic kind, and the action opens under his newly acquired Venus by Titian. And when his courtier mates abduct Gilda, they leave in her bed a crude model of the unclothed beauty.

Lest there be any doubt about the character of this elite society and its master, the Duke gouges out the eyes of Eric Greene’s Monterone—a savage directorial decision that perhaps goes a little too far. His supporters look on indifferently, as they do later, unmoved by Rigoletto’s fate.

There’s a Shakespearean quality to Rigoletto, the opera and the man. The jester has been a party to the violence and misogyny, but as comedy turns to tragedy, Carlos Álvarez perfectly captures the crumbling arrogance, the vulnerability caused by his love for Gilda, the mockery abandoned for bitterness. His voice wanders around the note at times but his is a compelling performance.

Lisette Oropesa as Gilda has only one big aria, "Caro nome", but what a magnificent, yearning job she makes of it, her beautiful legato lines expressing an inner tension of barely restrained emotion.

As Sparafucile, Brindley Sherratt sounds and looks as dark as the passage you would not want to find him in. His abused sister Maddalena needs a comforting swig or too to face up to her customers. Ramona Zaharia finds a sympathetic side to the role and sings sweetly, although a little under-powered in ensemble passages.

The stage action is brilliantly handled, including the court revels and particularly the abduction scene. Antonio Pappano responds in this 2021 performance with vivacity and sensitivity.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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