sun 26/05/2024

Rigoletto, Royal Opera review - routine clouds the best in this season opener | reviews, news & interviews

Rigoletto, Royal Opera review - routine clouds the best in this season opener

Rigoletto, Royal Opera review - routine clouds the best in this season opener

Orchestra and chorus pass with flying colours, but tradition weighs heavy elsewhere

Lisette Oropesa's Gilda and Carlos Álvarez's Rigoletto shamed by the ducal courtAll images by Ellie Kurttz

Another season, another new production of Verdi’s nastiest masterpiece. For which we should be profoundly grateful after the tribulations of the last 18 months. Yet how quickly elements of the routine can corrode the soul of the spectator, just as fresh, urgent communication can set it alight.

That communication Royal Opera Music Director Antonio Pappano displays with a true magician’s sense of pace and sleight of hand, deftly transitioning from hollow comedy to ugly tragedy, alert as ever to the needs of his soloists, and the Royal Opera men’s chorus is with him all the way. On the other hand Director of Opera Oliver Mears, showing his form for the first time in a brand new Covent Garden production, seems hamstrung by the confines of a season opener which has to play to the regulars, and by the stock performances of international opera stars. That it doesn’t have to be this way is exemplified by Glyndebourne’s very recent approach to Luisa Miller, a pre-Rigoletto Verdi gem which took stripping down to the emotional essence, and demanded that an equally world-class cast played it for truth, not melodrama. That proved intensely moving, devastating even, while even the shock value here is only skin deep.

Carlos Alvarez and Liparit AvetisyanMears plays safe with the essence, adding only two layers. One affects Simon Lima Holdsworth’s moody designs: the visual references are Italian even if the production’s locale feels indeterminate. A Caravaggesque tableau of depravity meets the curse-climax of the Prelude; this Duke of Mantua is a connoisseur of art as well, or so he would have us think, as of women, cueing Titian’s Venus of Urbino – though why the upper background is cropped within the giant frame remains a distracting question – and later a rather badly-copied detail from the same artist’s The Rape of Europa when he wonders why the girl he’s pursuing has been snatched away (pictured above). Cleverly enough, the prone nude is reflected in said girl, the jester’s daughter Gilda, whom the court thinks is his mistress framed lying on her virginal bed dressed in black, and finally assassin Sparafucile’s skanky-whore sister in a bare upstairs room by the river. The other layer doesn’t really work: this is a horrible story, and we could have been shocked by the atrocity committed on the cursing Duke of Monterone (Eric Greene) at the end of the first scene - misplaced reference to King Lear, an opera on which Verdi wanted to write before he turned to Victor Hugo's monologue-heavy Le roi s'amuse, a shabby great shocker by comparison - and by the dummy Gilda Rigoletto discovers beneath her bedclothes at the end of the second, but neither really comes off. The chorus of horrid courtiers is at least well choreographed by Anna Morrissey.

Two of the three principals, on the other hand, just stand and deliver as you imagine they do in every opera house across the world. Carlos Álvarez has held a crown among dark-hued Verdi baritones for 30 years now, but his Rigoletto exists in one, routine dimension only. We want to hear different colours in the voice when he sings his free-form monologue on the similarity between his poisonous tongue and the assassin’s knife, some terror in the timbre when he reflects on how the old man cursed him, most crucially of all real tenderness for his daughter – his only redeeming feature, even if he has locked her up as a Taliban leader would – in asking her maid to take good care of her. But none of this happens, least of all in what should be one of the few true points of the melting mood in “Veglia, o donna”. You can see why Pappano would want Liparit Avetisyan as his insouciant Duke (pictured above with Álvarez), the lighter tenor to the life who waxes in confidence as he glides through the drama (“La donna è mobile” is stylish, but he might have learned by now to come off the high Bs quicker). Yet though he may look like a young Pavarotti, charismatic he isn’t. Lisette Oropesa doesn’t have a huge amount to go on as the silly girl who loves her rapist to the end, but her lyric soprano – fuller than usual in this role – is engaged in a “Caro nome” fascinatingly different from the coloratura usual. Brindley Sherratt hits the mark as the assassin, and Ramona Zaharia does what she has to (and a bit more in the way of straddling the Duke) at the inn; the Quartet is another musical highlight of the evening, though the storm sequence incorporating the knifing of the disguised Gilda lacks real thrust on stage.

Not so down in the pit. Stravinsky singled this stretch of the drama out for Verdi’s brilliant individuality in using musical cliches and incorporating them into something individual and thrilling, and the same could be said of the doomy fanfares and the climax of the minimal Prelude. Pappano and his musicians give us the real full-orchestral thrill here, something we haven’t heard in an opera house for a long time. The libidinous party zips along elegantly; the muted cello and bass solos accompanied by pizzicato and staccato woodwind as Sparafucile announces his trade really make the flesh creep; Rigoletto’s cry for revenge seethes in the pit, though not, alas, in the character. The Royal Opera’s real triumph this year so far has been the supposedly more minimal Richard Jones production of Mozart's La clemenza di Tito, brilliantly well defined and cast; for now, though cast changes in March 2022 may make all the difference, it’s business as usual, and that isn’t quite good enough.


Carlos Álvarez's singing "one-dimensional"? WRONG. Liparit Avetisyan not "charismatic"? WRONG. .

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