Last Updated on September 14, 2021
A luminous Rigoletto lights up the Garden
After the financial and logistical nightmare of lockdown, it is wonderful to see the Royal Opera House roaring back in 2021 with their new season of ballet and opera. The 11 new productions, five of which are world premieres, are spearheaded by Oliver Mears’ production of Rigoletto. Mears is the new director of opera at the Royal Opera House so there is a lot at stake riding on his replacement of David McVicar’s edgy 2001 production.
Rigoletto is often regarded as the first of Verdi’s mature operas; a place where the composer breaks free of some of the formal constraints of the ‘bel canto’ style of opera embracing more complex social issues and characterisations than had previously been acceptable. The libretto for the opera by Francesco Maria Piave is a reworking of Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse. After a succession of wrangles with the censors, the story was relocated from France to the court of the Duke of Mantua. The opera is about the abuse of power and its consequences. In the #MeToo era the focus on the sexual shenanigans of the rich and powerful have a profoundly contemporary resonance even if they are not made explicit in this production.
Mears’ production opens in a court of shadows. Set and lighting designers Simon Lima Holdsworth and Fabiana Piccioli have created an oppressive chiaroscuro world worthy of Caravaggio which colours virtually the whole opera apart from the tragic and tumultuous storm scene in the finale. It’s a venal space made for the amusement of men where women are either embellishments or amusements to be idolised, consumed and then discarded. The all-male chorus is swathed in gorgeous velvet and silk brocade outfits by costume designer Ilona Karas.
But despite the success of the production elements, the night belonged to the singers. The eponymous hunchback Rigoletto, baritone Carlos Álvarez, is the court jester to the Duke of Mantua and the opera is built around his emotional journey. Rigoletto carries the curse placed upon him by Count Monterone – Eric Greene in a satisfyingly Gothic turn – for his part in the seduction of Monterone’s daughter by the Duke. Alvarez imbues the character of Rigoletto with humanity and depth as he navigates a passage through the callous toxicity of the court back to the safe haven of his relationship with his teenage daughter Gilda (Lisette Oropesa). Alvarez’s vocal is a dramatically satisfying slow burn maintaining a sense of resigned restraint until the final scene when he thinks he has his revenge on the Duke (“Egli è là!…morto!” – “There he is – dead”) and then finally breaks with emotion as he realises his fateful error (“Ah, la maledizione!” – “Ah, the curse!).
Rigoletto has tried to protect Gilda from predatory men by making her live the life of a recluse. Her seduction and subsequent rape by the Duke leads to a wonderful duet full of pathos (“Padre, in voi parla un angiol per me consolator” – “Father, an angel speaks through you”) which was one of many highlights in an incandescent performance by Cuban-American soprano Lisette Oropesa. She received several deserved ovations and in particular for “Gualtier Maldè!… Caro nome che il mio cor” – “Dearest name” which combined flawless technique with a naïve sensibility.
I last saw Liparit Avetisyan at the ROH singing the role of Germont in La Traviata. The part of the Duke of Mantua is perfect for his type of lyrical yet powerful tenor voice. The Duke is a libertine, protected by the system who takes pleasure in cuckolding his courtiers. During the opening party scene, he lays out his philosophy in “Questa o quella” – “This woman or that”, a big sing that is nimbly executed. Under the guise of being a poor student, the Duke romances Gilda in the sublime, sensual and uplifting duet “È il sol dell’anima” – “Love is the sunshine of the soul”. Avetisyan and Oropesa’s voices meshed together to create one of the most erotically charged scenes in the operatic repertoire.
The big hit from the show is of course the Duke’s “La donna è mobile” – “Woman is fickle”, delivered by Avetisyan with a deft lightness of touch which belies the hypocrisy of the lyric and the fatal consequences of the character’s narcissism.
Special mention must go to bass Brindley Sherratt’s Sparafucile, the assassin. Sherratt brought a chilling sense of the Luca Brasi character from the Godfather to his interpretation. His sister Maddalena was tasked with luring his victims to their deaths and Ramona Zaharia’s sultry mezzo and Sophia Lorenesque looks brought a sense of dramatic authenticity to the character.
The evening was held together by conductor Antonio Pappano who marshalled the forces of the Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra to great effect. This was Pappano’s first Rigoletto in 29 years and the evening was his success as much as the singers with the dramatic pace never faltering from the opening brass fanfare rendition of the ‘curse’ them to the final drawn-out minor chords that reinforce the triumph of evil.
I have just one caveat. While my view from the stalls was perfect, the last act was mostly blocked stage left meaning that paying punters in the left-hand upper slips had no view of the last act, something that Oliver Mears should resolve.
This was a world-class evening of opera, beautifully constructed and delivered by all involved. It’s reassuring to know that after the lifting of lockdown that The Royal Opera House can still produce work at the highest level. Oliver Mears’ Rigoletto is a must-see!
Tickets are available here
Rigoletto is showing on 16th, 18th, 21st, 24th, 27th and 29th September and then returns in February 2022 with tickets starting at £11
Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD
Magic Flute is also showing at the Royal Opera House – check our preview here
Photography by Ellie Kurttz for the ROH