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When Verdi sat down to write Rigoletto in the late 1840s, he must have had a crystal ball on his desk as well as a sheet of manuscript paper. An opera about a man in a position of authority who uses his power to abuse the women around him might have been made for our times.
Every day seems to bring a new candidate for Verdi’s licentious Duke of Mantua and directors have easy targets for an updated version of the opera that puts them on stage. The Royal Opera’s new production, though, is not one of them.
Setting out on what one hopes will be the first full season in two years has its challenges. The company feels this is no time to frighten away audiences or lavish resources on a production that may not last, so director Oliver Mears has played it safe.
His message is that male abusers are always with us. History’s Duke of Mantua in the 1500s was a patron of the arts, so the production opens with a Renaissance tableau bathed in Caravaggio-like lighting. As if in King Lear, poor Monterone gets blinded, a gory twist that might have unnerved even an ardent Shakespearean such as Verdi.
From there the timescale shifts gradually to the present. Rigoletto swaps his devilish red and black jester’s outfit for an olive-green suit. The last act takes place in a concrete bunker of a house until a last-minute shift of the scenery brings up a picturesque panorama that looks like the Suffolk fens. Let us hope Peter Grimes does not wander on by mistake at later performances.
Far from trying to shock the audience, Mears keeps sex and violence at bay — no X-rated orgy, no naked bodies, no bloody rape. Everything is sharp in detail, but rather careful, the settings vaguely handsome, the time and place unspecific, so some strong characters are needed centre stage.
In the title role, Carlos Alvarez is always vivid and, while other baritones have sung this music with greater Italianate elegance and expression, he does have a big, bronze, Verdian voice. His Gilda, Lisette Oropesa, started sounding a touch thin high up (which she has not been in online performances during the pandemic), but moved into top gear as the evening progressed with a silvery stream of high-class singing. Tenor Liparit Avetisyan struck the right puppyish attitude for the Duke of Mantua and wins friends for bringing vocal light and shade to his role. There are passing weaknesses among the smaller roles, but Brindley Sherratt made a grave Sparafucile and Ramona Zaharia an alluring Maddalena.
In nearly 20 years with the Royal Opera, this is the first time Antonio Pappano has conducted Rigoletto. His Verdi has never been the fussy, trim kind, and everything about his performance was writ large: the darkness of the melodrama, the baleful power at the climaxes, the sheer emotional scale of Verdi’s musical canvas. This Rigoletto will probably feel a paler show without him in years to come.
To March 12 2022, roh.org.uk