It was David McVicar who delivered Rigoletto into the noughties. At its premiere back in 2001 his production shocked and outraged some with its blatant sex and violence, but with this fourth revival it seems to be establishing itself as a sturdy and dependable classic
This is not to suggest it can’t still pack a punch, rather that even with a less than exceptional cast, it still has the capacity to move. Much of its success is down to the sensitivity of McVicar’s approach: Verdi’s tragedy is firmly rooted in the context of Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse, on which it was based that of sixteenth-century Mantua (indeed, it’s tempting to see his Duke as modelled on Federico II Gonzaga, a real life prince of porn who built a Mantuan love-shack in the Palazzo T) and yet it is imbued with an otherworldly quality that lifts it above mere realism.
Much credit is due to Michael Vale, whose economical set designs, coupled with Paule Constable’s lighting, establish the tone of the piece: the setting is crepuscular and shadowy, as if the action were taking place at the bottom of a mine shaft, with illumination coming from top-lights and candle flames, and swirled with dust or smoke. Rigoletto’s house is a ramshackle assembly of chicken wire and scaffolding, that can twist like a corkscrew to represent the Ducal palace, and he scuttles around it like the black beetle his carapace costume resembles.
That the drama in this performance seems to lack some of its earlier freshness may reflect on revival director Daniel Dooner: whilst there are some notable vocal performances, the characters are not especially engaging. Francesco Meli, making his Royal Opera debut as the Duke, has stage presence but little depth of character, although he executes his key arias with smoothness and style. Likewise Ekaterina Siurina, although a slightly insipid Gilda, is in excellent voice: her soprano is not as hefty as some but it is beautifully burnished in the top register and piercingly accurate.
Leo Nucci assumes the title role, one that has featured prominently in his long career, in which he effectively contrasts insectoid physicality with very human emotion. His baritone still has depth and elasticity, and he establishes an impressive rapport with Siurina their frequent, tender exchanges are delivered with an immaculate balance of emotion and dynamics.
Aside from the main trio, there is a noteworthy contribution from two Jette Parker Young Artists, Vuyani Mlinde as Count Ceprano and Changhan Lim’s Marullo, and in the pit Daniel Oren commanded a crisp but finely-nuanced account from the orchestra.