Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London, 10, 13, 16, 18, 21, 23, 25 June, 6, 9, 13 July 2005
Paolo Gavanelli as Rigoletto, Anna Netrebko as Gilda (Photo: Clive Barda)
It seems unbelievable now, but Verdi's Rigoletto was a disaster at its premiere. There's no doubt that this was partly due to inferior casting, but the fact remains that the score was just too unusual for the Venetian critics of the time.
Furthermore, it took nearly 50 years after the first performance of Victor Hugo's original play before it was performed again, so scandalous was its depiction of wayward royalty. Clearly this is something of a phenomenon.
Its power continues to astound audiences, but today Rigoletto is one of the composer's most popular operas and widely regarded as Verdi's first masterpiece. The contrast of the Duke's carefree arias Questa o quella and La donna è mobile with the intense duets between the hunchbacked jester Rigoletto and his daughter Gilda creates an irresistible emotional framework for Verdi's musical canvas.
The juxtaposition of light and dark, tragedy and comedy, is one of the key features of this score. For instance, the opening prelude represents the grief of the bereaved father that we never experience at the opera's close; this is offset against the opening scene of banal party music. Throughout, the clashing demands made on Gilda by the two men in her life - her protective father and her reckless lover, the Duke of Mantua - provide the emotional sparks that make this opera so compelling.
Rarely has it been so well served than by this, the second revival of the Royal Opera's 2001 production by David McVicar. McVicar's productions seem to settle down on their second or third showings, as the recent Die Zauberflöte and Faust proved, and this Rigoletto has already taken on vintage status. Evocatively staged with simple but elegant revolving sets by Michael Vale and beautiful period costumes by Leah Hausman, this is one of the greatest Verdi productions in the company's repertoire.
Wonderful as the staging is, however, it was the musical aspect that made this such a memorable event. The conducting of Sir Edward Downes, still sprightly as an octogenarian, deserves first honours, for ensuring both excellent coordination between stage and pit and a brilliantly paced Verdian interpretation in general. It's difficult to think of a conductor who understands middle-period Verdi as well as Downes, and he is reason enough to attend this revival.
Both lead and minor roles were expertly filled this time around, led by Paolo Gavanelli returning to play the title role. Combining a classic Italianate sound with a deeply convincing insight into this troubled character's psyche, Gavanelli played Rigoletto more convincingly than many an illustrious predecessor. Vicious in the opening scene and tender in his duets with Gilda, this is a well-rounded and spellbinding performance.
As Gilda, the starry young Russian soprano Anna Netrebko simply wooed the audience from the word go. Her vocal production is faultless, her projection better than the majority of leading singers and her understanding of the part unrivalled. The opera was made all the more convincing by Netrebko's strong-willed version of Gilda, who is too often portrayed as a wet cabbage leaf. Here, it was really possible to believe that Gilda died for love of both the Duke and Rigoletto. Also impressive was her poignant rendition of Caro nome, making her impending abduction by her father's enemies all the more upsetting.
The Polish tenor Piotr Beczala is a real find. He stole the show in his single aria in last year's Der Rosenkavalier, made the revival of Faust more than bearable, and is totally captivating as the Duke of Mantua. All the famous tenor arias and the great quartet Bella figlia dell'amore were delivered with the beauty of the great Italian tenors of the past, whilst Beczala's acting even makes us believe that the Duke may have something resembling a heart.
In the smaller roles, Marina Domashenko was a full-blooded Maddalena, Eric Halfvarson a sinister Sparafucile and former Vilar Young Artist Darren Jeffery a commanding Monterone.
This really is as good a Rigoletto as you will ever see; a mesmerising performance of an amazing opera.